False Spring

Photo of Forest Trees With Snow Melting on Ground

It was warmer than it should’ve been. That day, towards the end of January when my world stopped.

The winter always steals something from me, something biological and necessary. The sun and sky feed me and keep me tolerable. And that day was so warm. You could even hear the birds singing.

They called it false spring. You were determined to eek every ounce of pleasure one day could muster. Who ever heard of a picnic in January in Ohio? But we weren’t alone. The park wasn’t crowded, but there were enough people to disrupt your plans, if you had cared about privacy. The meadow was soggy with melting winter and the woods were dripping. But you took me there, deep in the trees. You always took me, wherever and whenever you wanted me.

I have so many scars from us, but only those are visible still. You were fierce, coaxing me with your fingers and tongue as the bark scraped my skin. You forced sounds from me that I’d never heard myself make. We were a tribute to sex. A human sacrifice to the gods of pleasure. And when you were finally done with me, as the sun was setting, I was certain I had fallen for you.

I couldn’t have known just how much further I had to fall.

We slipped into the seats of my Mercury, soaked through but sparkling. “Turn the heat up,” you growled through clenched teeth. “My Goosebumps have Goosebumps.” My own teeth chattered as I leaned forward cranking up the dial, fat raindrops splattering on the windshield. Do you remember what you said?

My mind replayed that seen over and over for months after. If I just could’ve had that day back, everything would’ve been different. You leaned over, holding my hands between yours and blowing into them. If only I’d played it cool. But you said the thing that blew up any rational thought in my mind. “I wish I could do that to you forever.”

I get it today, looking back. You meant it differently than I took it. My brain was soup, melted like the snow by dopamine and oxytocin. Your lips kissing my knuckles only set the misinterpretation in stone.

Guys think girls are crazy. Girls think guys are cold and calculating. It just all comes down to the simple fact that we don’t understand each other. You think we are too sensitive, too love hungry, too clingy, too emotional… Too much. You are too unfeeling, too stubborn, too self-absorbed, too physical. I wonder if one just brings about the other. But it’s the chicken and the egg, isn’t it?

That afternoon was like a brick in the foundation of my future. You watched me spiraling and tried so hard to pull back on the reigns. On some level, I think I knew it. That I was pushing you and manipulating you. Sex is the best weapon, sometimes on both sides. I negotiated with myself that it was normal, that this is how women keep men interested. But it was more than that, wasn’t it. You were addicted and I was your dealer. I let you do anything to me. Just promise to come back tomorrow. 

I threw the four letter word around for both of us, deluding myself into a psychotic certainty that you just couldn’t say it. That your childhood had created a block against it, and I simply needed to keep pushing. I learned to cook everything you liked, cleaned your apartment for you every weekend, washed your clothes in my washing machine so you didn’t have to waste time going to a laundromat.

It was the hours together on the weekend that fooled me. You were so appreciative. I can’t even blame you for using me. Who wouldn’t? I was giving you everything any man could possibly want. I was the housewife without the house and marriage. I hung out with your friends and did stuff for them too. They all loved me. 

Did you know it was Billy who told me? It was almost summer and I’d packed a beautiful picnic, determined to recreate that afternoon in January, except better. I came to pick you up and he was there, sitting on your stoop. His dark eyes were wide as he looked up at me, his jaw was set beneath his beard.

“He’s not here,” his voice was gruff and low. “But sit with me for a minute, ok?” I set the basket down but remained standing until he looked at me again, his brows knitted tightly together. “Please, Case. Sit.”

When I did, he leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and rubbed his face. “Where is he?” I asked, my voice a bit too high. My stomach felt like it was filled with bees. “We were-“

“Do you ever actually spend the night with Calvin?” He interrupted, turning his face to look at me. “You’re normally at your place in the evening, right? And he tells you he needs to sleep in his own bed?” 

His head was cocked slightly and his eyes bore into me. I’d always felt like he could see right through me. My throat felt tight as I tried to say I didn’t know. He shifted to square his shoulders to me and his eyes blazed.

I didn’t want to hear any of it. But once he started, I didn’t want him to stop. He told me about the woman from your office back in January, several more you’d met at bars. “Didn’t you ever wonder why he left so early?”

Of course I did. But being faced with testimony only made me numb. I told him I loved you and that I didn’t care. I already suspected that you were a sex addict. I was ready to excuse it all. 

But it wasn’t just random women, anymore. “Her name is Jenna. His lease is up next month, and he’s going to move in with her.”

Everything suddenly clicked. 

You’d talked about her a lot when we first started dating. But you never actually said you’d broke up. Billy said that you never had.  He told me everything. Heading home just before she got off work or sending me home when I was at your place. You told her that you’d hired someone to do your cleaning and laundry. You told her that your mom left her earrings in your living room. You stayed at her place, all the time.

“You don’t deserve this, Casey. And I just can’t stand by and let him ghost you.” His voice was soft and his hand was firm on my shoulder. Maybe he thought I’d run away. “He isn’t worthy of you.”

Some sick, broken part of my brain locked onto that phrase. I called him a liar. I may have even slapped him across the face for being such a horrible friend. I tried to storm away and I might have tricked myself into believing that he made it all up just so he could try to get me for himself. But then he said the one thing I couldn’t ignore.

“He bought her a ring.” The words were gritty and dull, but his eyes continued to blaze. “I can show you. He’s doing it now.”

I wonder sometimes what would have happened if he’d let me walk away that afternoon. I may have kept cleaning your place and washing your clothes for another couple of weeks, sucking you off on Sunday morning and letting you continue to experiment on my body and mind until you just disappeared.

Would you have ever told me? Did I mean anything to you at all?

The sun was warm on our backs as we walked the length of the park I’d planned to take you to that afternoon. When I first saw you, in the woods, I thought you were alone. But Billy turned me around just as I noticed your fingers combing through her dark, red hair, your jeans hanging a little too low on your hips. 

I fought him to let me turn back around and watched you finish, that groan from deep in your chest audible even from 200 yards away. She stood up, and you kissed her like you never kissed me. You wrapped her arms around her and said something I couldn’t understand, but her laughter rang like a disharmonic chord through the trees. And as her hands came up to link around your neck, a gem glinted in the sun on her left ring finger.

Billy asked if I wanted to confront you as I watched you kissing her neck. All I could do was shake my head. How stupid I was, how crazy I had been. I turned and stared up at him, my hands and face numb. And I walked back to the car without saying anything. 

I thought he must’ve known I was crazy, because he didn’t leave me alone all weekend. He took me to my car and followed me back to my place, watched me pack your half-finished laundry into trash bags and carried them for me to the dumpster. The tears started around 6pm and didn’t stop for days. 

I’d loved you with everything I had in me, and it hadn’t been enough. How does a person get over that? 

Billy spent the next night on my sofa too and bought coffee and croissants Monday morning. As the tears burned inside my swollen eyes, he asked if I was going to be ok. If I could pretend that you loved me, I could surely pretend I was ok. And so I did.

But he was right to not trust me because after he left, I drove to your apartment. I called into work and sat outside, waiting for you to come home all day. I stared at my phone willing you to call or text, to find out when I was bringing over your laundry, but there was nothing. I tried to figure out who she was, too. But your social media was perfectly crafted to appear public, but be as private as humanly possible. I couldn’t even find her last name. 

Billy found me there again Thursday at 8pm. I’d gone there each day after work, waiting to see you, to confront you. I’d fallen asleep in my car every night.

He tapped on my window softly, “This isn’t ok, Case.” He pulled me from my car and wrapped me in a hug. “You need to call someone, there must be a friend or sister-“

“Stop,” I spat, pushing hard against his chest. “As if this isn’t humiliating enough, I now have to tell everyone I know that-” I finally freed myself from his arms and gritted my teeth against a sob. “That I made up an entire relationship in my mind.” I balled my fists and squeezed my eyes shut. “I must be insane.”

Headlights flared on the corner, making me want to hide. Hadn’t I gone there to confront him? But when Billy stepped in front of me to shield me from the oncoming car, I stared up at him and recalled what he’d said when we first met.

Calvin must be the best con man in the world to win over an angel like you.

My heart hammered against my lungs as the car passed us and continued up the street. Frozen in his gaze, I stopped imagining how I’d looked to everyone else. This man had basically risked all of his friends to help me see the truth. I’m ashamed to admit that I hadn’t seen all of the ways he tried to warn me before. He’d even called me Jenna, once. Billy had cared more about me than you.

He took me home and we called my sister in Illinois. He left me on the phone with her, but asked me to call him before I went to sleep. 

I called you first. 

I wonder if you ever got to hear that message. I like to think you did and that you felt some modicum of guilt. I don’t like thinking of you as the womanizing sex-addict who was murdered by one of his victims. For my own sanity, I like to remember how sweet you were after making me come. How you held me that afternoon in the park, kissing each of my fingertips and telling me you wanted to hear me make those noises again and again. How those few nights when you did stay the night with me, you’d hold me all night and make me feel loved, even if you never said it.

We all know now just how much you’d twisted everything and everyone. I still don’t blame you, not like Jenna does. Or like Marcy obviously did. She plead insanity and might’ve only gotten 3 years in a psychiatric hospital. But instead, she bled to death having punctured her jugular with a sharpened toothbrush. 

I try not to blame myself either, and my therapist says I should blame you since you were the one who lied. But I always catch myself thinking back and recognizing that you didn’t really lie to me. You never promised me love. You never promised me anything, really. Even that one misunderstood promise on that false spring day was never really a promise at all.

That brittle ‘forever’ flaked away to nothing, by the time I found out everything. Shredded by the thousand paper cuts the truth offered me. It all left so little behind besides the salty sweet aftertaste of indifference.

I suppose I owe that all to Billy. He called every night after after that, until last January when we started spending the nights with each other. He’d asked me at Halloween if I would give him the chance to show me everything I’d been missing with you. It didn’t take long for me to see.

It was a bitter cold day, nothing false or spring about it. But under my covers, late that night, he made me feel like you never did. And when he whispered that he loved me and then shouted it for anyone to hear during the weeks after, I realized that my world had finally started back up again. 

And that everything happens for a reason.

Life flashes before your eyes

Life flashes before your eyes

You’re never ready for it. All hell breaks loose and your brain suddenly feels like swiss cheese. Women are better at dealing with it than men are, sure. Specifically mothers, like there’s some sort of mechanism born within the mind of a momma when she gets pregnant. But the feeling is the same. “What the fuck do I do now?” It’s a universal thought process.

When you add trauma to the chaos, that’s when momma’s really shine. Take a black woman in her kitchen making dinner for her kids when she hears thumping bass notes turning onto her street, that first pop barely reaches her ear before she’s pulling those babies into the basement stairwell, screaming at them to get down. Like she knew it was coming. But then a bullet aimed at the neighboring dump ricochets off a shovel sitting on their porch and bursts right in through her living room window and catches her neck as she’s hunching down to follow her kids on the steps. She doesn’t immediately have that next step ready at the front of her brain to call out to her 12 year old now watching her momma slide down the steps with blood seeping from a major artery. Nope. She thinks to herself, “What the fuck do I do now?”

Holding a hand to the wound, pressing as hard as I can, staring into my oldest baby’s face as I tried to unfold emergency plans in my head, I felt as stupid as the dummy I married who is now rotting in a prison cell up state. Fortunately for me, it’s my daughter who inherited brains from someone else in my family who had the plan.

The 911 operator’s voice seeps from the phone calm and authoritative, and I thank heaven for that. “My mom’s been shot. We’re at 62 Hanover St. It was a drive by and I think the bullet is still in there because I’m pretty sure it hit an artery but the blood is just sort of leaking out.” I raised an eyebrow at my little science junkie. “Don’t press too hard, Momma. Just keep your hand there.”

I watched her bark orders at her younger siblings, her beautiful eyes focused on me until she heard the sirens outside. As she stood on the step beside me, peeking out the basement door, I cursed myself for never getting us out of this shitty neighborhood.

“Make sure it’s cops first, baby. Don’t open the door until the cops are here.” I grabbed her wrist with my left hand, “And keep your hands way up in the air, you hear me?”

She shook me off, “I know, I know.” I could see the lights, but my vision was getting hazy. “Hang on, Momma. Just hang on.” I imagined her with babies of her own in some big house in the suburbs with a two car garage and one of those kitchens with a double oven. She’s smarter than me. She would take her brains to college, instead of getting knocked up at 18. I prayed every day of her life that she would be smarter than me.

The police pounded on the door, and she walked out of the stairwell with both hands straight up in the air. “I’m coming to unlock and open the door. I have a phone in my hand, but only a phone.” As she unlocked the door, I prayed some more for God to keep her safe. It was getting hard to hear over the heartbeat in my ears. Oh why couldn’t I have just gotten us out of this hell?

My vision went black and I felt as though I were floating, carried by something free of form. Light began to flood in all around me. Blinding light. But then, suddenly, I was standing in my kitchen. I looked around at a frozen moment in time. Raybecca stood at the front door, hands high, in front of a familiar looking cop. I turned to the stairwell, my crumpled body lay on the top two steps, Miandra and Michayla hunched around my legs. Watching their momma die. And Tobias sat with his back to it all on the bottom step. Good boy, Toby. You keep your mind and memories safe.

I turned back, the cops eyes were on me. I blinked and he smiled. “Hey, Dahlia.” His voice was familiar too. And his skin glowed like amber coated bronze. I did know him.

“Lonnell?” I took a step forward but stopped as an invisible band held me in place. “How- Am I dead?”

He laughed, and the sound went straight through me. It was rich and deep, and something that had been frozen within me for a long time melted. “No, baby girl.” He stepped around the statue of my daughter. Nothing else moved. There was absolutely no sound but his voice. “This isn’t death. This is a choice.”

He came to stand in front of me, and part of me wanted to reach out to grab him. But if the choice was between going wherever he came from and staying alive for my babies, I could never choose him.

“I know.” He gave a sad, hopeless smile as he stood before me. “But if you had chosen me all those years ago, we’d be in a different place now, wouldn’t we?”

I blinked up at him. “How could I have known Ray would do what he did?”

His eyes narrowed, and his smile disappeared. “You believe that you didn’t see that side of him? The day I met you, he’d backhanded you right in the middle of a Walmart parking lot. Knocked a beautiful, pregnant woman to the ground. You didn’t know then what he was capable of?”

Some loyal part of me stretched to defend him. But Lonnell’s point was valid. “I loved him. I was about to have his daughter.”

“I can’t fault you for giving him the second chance, Dahlia. But the others?” He pointed to the steps, and I started down at the frozen figures of the only other things Ray ever gave me. “Eh, I’m just salty because you didn’t feel what I felt back then.” He stepped forward and his warmth invaded me. “This is a new choice though, baby.”

He took my hand and spun me on the spot. As my vision cleared, I stood in a sunny kitchen before a broad, pine table with benches on either side where 12 children sat eating breakfast. I looked at their faces and realized that the twins were sat at the end, teenagers now and laughing as their brother sat across from them. His preteen face sulky, but his hazel eyes lit up like I’d never seen before. The rest of the faces were unfamiliar until I turned around to see Becca standing at the kitchen island with a forty-something version of Lonelle.

She was a woman, three massive textbooks in her arms. “She’s just finished pre-med. But that smile on her face that looks so much like yours is because my wife, Liza just told her that the scholarship program she started when she graduated high school is going to put 4 kids into college.”

As my eyes moved around the kitchen and found Liza, my absent insides twisted. Liza-Marie had been Ray’s girl before me. In high school, she’d dumped him because he had disrespected her father. And now she was married to Lonell, the boy who’d promised to save me from all that I’d made myself endure. He’d married her and was going to take in my four parentless kids?

“They are all foster kids. Liza and I can’t have our own. So we try to give a better chance to kids who grew up like we did. Show them there’s another way.” He stepped up next to me and took my hand again.

I looked up at him. “This is my choice? Die and give them to you or keep them… And what? Fuck them up forever?”

“No, baby girl. That’s not the choice at all.” His fingers came under my chin. “Think bigger.”

I felt this world falling away. He didn’t spin me this time, just lifted my face, and when he let go, I stood in the parking lot of Becca’s elementary school, holding the hands of my tiny toddler twins and pregnant with Tobias. I remembered the day vividly. I’d stood there with my babies waiting for their older sister and trying to think what to do. Seven months pregnant with a swollen, bruised face, two broken ribs, and nothing to call my own, I was about to decide to stay, just until the baby was born. But I never left.

“You could choose differently this day. Decide not to go back. Move into that woman’s shelter. You could have had Ray arrested for this, instead of that terrible thing he did after this. Your friend Natalie from Becca’s school would’ve taken you in and gotten you a part-time job at the school, helping kids who don’t have computers at home learn how to use them.”

He squeezed my hand again, and I opened my eyes to the nursery where the twins spent their first fragile days of life. Ray had disappeared for 29 days and Becca was being looked after by Ray’s sister, who I was pretty sure was a heroin addict. But I hadn’t known what else to do. There was a nurse, wheeling me into the NICU 26 hours after my precious babies had been taken out of me in a emergency C-section. I was still swollen and weak from preeclampsia. But they’d finally let me out of bed to go meet them. I didn’t even remember my babies being born.

“She’d asked if she could go get Becca for you, do you remember?” I nodded but not looking at the nurse. I stared at myself. So puffy and stubborn. I wouldn’t even accept help when it was offered. “She would’ve helped you get into a better house, too. Her mother’s house in Reynoldsburg. She would’ve let you live there and helped you get that IT certification you’d wanted. When the girls were two, you would’ve moved into your own home where Becca would’ve been mentored by an amazing science teacher and even graduated early.”

I looked down at our feet, “Why are you telling me this?”

He slipped his fingers under my chin to look up at him, and when he dropped them, we were back in my crappy house on Hanover Street, right after we’d moved in. I stood at the bedroom door with Becca on my hip, watching her Daddy, naked on the bed with another woman. “He turned this around and made the whole thing seem like my fault,” I said in a tight voice, remembering all of the times between then and now that Lonell wasn’t showing me. All the moments I should have walked away.

I turned away, and as I did, a park shelter house materialized, where he’d shown up drunk to his daughter’s first birthday. My expression frozen in horror as I watched the path of his fist coming straight at me. The first of many full, facial punches over the years. “Stop, please.” I covered my face, but there were no tears.

Until I heard my own voice.

“I can’t Lonell. I know I’m probably making a mistake, but you won’t love this little girl like he will.”

Lonelle at 21 was softer than he was at 35. His kind, coffee color eyes scanned over me. My face had healed from the night in the parking lot, but I’d seen him every day since that night. “That’s where you’re wrong, baby girl. I could love her more.”

I shook my head. But he kissed me. The whole world was right that night.

“You know I was right back then.” The 35 year old Lonell locked his fingers with mine as we watched our younger selves make love.

I turned toward him, “But I can’t go back. I can’t choose you now.”

He stepped close to me. “None of this has happened yet, Dahlia. I’m not real. You’re not dying on the steps to your basement. Ray doesn’t exist here. You have the chance to make a different choice right now. Any choice. But only one. And you won’t remember anything else once you’ve made it. Your life will simply move forward from that point, with a different trajectory.”

As I turned away from him, I saw them all. Options on a wheel of fortune. I could spin around and walk into any of them, deciding the opposite of what I’d decided before. I could decide not to let Carson Donovan put my hand in his pants when I was 12. I could say yes to going to prom with Stephen, our class valedictorian. I could walk away from our neighbor Mr Quintez when he asked if I wanted to watch a movie with him in his basement.

I could decide to go to college and get that degree in IT.

Making the entire circle, I turned back to Lonell. “But there were good things, too.” I closed my eyes and pictured my babies’ faces. I remembered the day Ray told me he was going to turn himself in, and try to turn his life around. I remembered the night we’d talked all night about how we could make things better. I remembered only a few days ago when I went to see him, and he cried fat, heavy tears about the things he did to me. “There were so many moments I will lose if I decided anything differently.”

Lonell’s smile was full and bright. “That’s right.” He nodded and held his hands out to me. “That’s what makes it so hard. You know what you know, but if you give one moment up, everything could be entirely different.” He put his hands together and opened them again to reveal a bubble. Like a crystal ball. I stepped close to see inside.

It was me. A foggy, different version of me, wearing an expensive looking flowered blouse with navy slacks. My hair was cropped short and flecked with gray, and I wore chunky jewelry that I always loved, but wouldn’t afford. I stood in a beautiful sunny office, writing on a whiteboard. But as I squinted to try to see more clearly, the bubble popped.

“Sometimes, the choice is simply to see yourself in a different life. And go there.”

I looked up into his eyes. And I saw the scene reflected there. My daughter’s face contorted with fear and anger in front of him. I turned and saw myself. The woman I’d let myself become, covered in blood. “Can I survive this?”

“If you make that choice.” He stepped back, his voice growing distant. “All you have to do is decide.”

Just a glimpse

I stood on the deserted beach watching jagged, angry shards of ice, deposited by the waves, stack up on each other.

Like brittle, living panes of glass just waiting for a pair of feet to shred.

It was brutally cold and every breath hurt to take in. The thick velour scarf my mother had given me before she died sat frozen at my lips. My fingers inside my wool mittens had gotten too stiff to feel.

I worried for a moment that I might not make it back inside.

But I had to see.

His ship broke open the cove just as the sun made a sliver of fire on the horizon. The ice cover on the bay wasn’t thick, so I knew they would only make one pass.

He stood, behind the rail, alone. A lantern hung by his side. His breath sent plumes of vapor up into the first light of morning. And the breaking sun made the sliver of skin visible around his eyes glow.

My heart pummeled against the inside of my breast.

He lifted a gloved hand to his mouth, pulling the fabric loose so that I might see his smile. It was too far to see properly, really. But my memory colored his lips and made the silver in his whiskers glimmer.

I waved and giggled. I wonder if the sound made it to his ear. I imagined it could, somehow, and whispered my love into the wind.

I watched until I thought I might break.

But I knew I would do it again tomorrow, if it wasn’t too cold. A glimpse was better than nothing. It was enough to stoke the fire in my belly.

Enough to warm me through another day.

Was it was the same for him?

I wonder.


Pop Pending. by amie-faerie via DeviantArt.com

Waiting is a game best left to the protagonists. They are methodical in their introspection, which of course is fascinating. But only in small doses for those in the world stripped of will and purpose.

The good guys can tolerate the doldrums of time wasted. For the rest of us, the ambling majority, the true posture of patience is pretty much impossible.

But give us something sweet to suck on while we wait, and that is a whole different story.

I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last. It started with a ride on a bus. I sat two rows behind them, sweating and cursing under my breath when the bus overheated one Wednesday in August.

Her laugh gave me something to absorb besides the sweltering heat. I was drawn in by her luscious disregard for her surroundings, and I listened as he told a story about punching a brute at the top of a hill, one summer day just like that one, then watching him stumble down the rocky face, crying for his mommy.

I could almost hear the little bully’s wails in between her giggles and sighs.

And that first drink led me to follow them off the bus. All the way to her home.

He kissed her against an elm tree growing thick and full next to her front steps. The branches cradled their shoulders, hiding their lips from view. But I watched from a tree away as her leg wrapped around his, drawing him closer and closer until there was nothing between them but heat.

Guilt and embarrassment took me right past them at a pace that left me breathless when I turned the corner.

But weeks, then months passed, and I found myself there. Again and again. Waiting for another sip, another taste. One more glimpse of someone else’s delicious world.

I stood at the gate to the tiny alley that ran beside her building, the angry bite of late autumn making my cheeks and fingers red and raw, and I watched. He scraped a thick layer of frost from her windshield while she teetered on the stoop, sucking on one of those horrid skinny cigarettes and touching her bare throat.

She never dressed appropriately for the weather. But I suppose some people just carry too much heat inside their beautiful bodies to be bothered by the chill in the air.

They did this often, and despite my every attempt to give up this deplorable addiction, I continued to ogle them nearly every morning. My alarm went off at 5 and I was perched in my spot at the edge of the alley by 6:20.

Unless I’d fallen asleep in her back garden.

He would finish with the scraper and slide it into his back pocket. She’d toss her filter in the street. He’d bend to pluck it out of the gutter, shaking his index finger at her until she stepped off the curb and stuck her tongue out at him. Giggling. Cheeks rosy from more than just the temperature.

She was as predictable as ever. But not him.

He shook his head this time and stooped down so that his eyes were level with hers. He whispered to her, I could never hear what he said, even as the depth of his voice rumbled through my belly, but she cupped her hands in front of her and lowered her eyes. So obedient.

His gaze skimmed the street, forcing me back into the shadow of the alley, as he slipped the butt into her palms, drawing them together and lifting them into the air above her lowered head.

Like a magician’s assistant in a turn-of-the-century sideshow, holding up an invisible apple for the blade or bullets first strike. Trembling with something I felt in the pit of my own belly.

I imagined what he might be saying into her ear. “Don’t drop it again, little girl.” I didn’t need to see his face. It was branded into the backs of my eyelids. I could never be free from it.

His long, slender fingers played in her hair while he slipped his other hand beneath the hem of her skirt.

I’d never seen her protest, but there was a first time for everything. She whimpered and said something that brought his eyes back to hers, as his fingers tightened in her hair, tugging her head up to meet his glare.

My own thighs trembled and I used every ounce of my willpower to hold back a groan.

I knew it was wrong, this sick fascination with him. And her. I’m not insane, after all. Just a lonely voyeur with too much time on my hands.

But I had gotten more brazen, watching their windows and sitting on her back stoop to listen to them make love as I touched myself in the dark. I could envision the actions that went with each sound, I could imagine his expression in the amber light they always left on, as his fingers squeezed the sides of her throat and his body pressed against, inside, and around her.

I could even feel his fingers just then, as I watched them in this stolen moment, half a dozen yards in front of me.

He bent forward and kissed her on the cheek as he pulled her arms down and plucked the cigarette from her palm.

The look on her face made me whimper.

“Have a good morning, Lil. Don’t be late for work.”

He always was so fucking frustrating with his exit.

She saw me that morning. I’m sure she had a thousand times, but that day, she locked eyes with me. And I felt something inside me break.

I tried to turn and go, but I was frozen. Locked in the gaze of this woman I wanted to be. Coveting everything about her, down to the smooth, olive skin she got to live inside of. She stared at me long enough that I thought she might scream, or call to him. But she only stood there.

It was the first time I’d ever seen him turn back to her after saying goodbye. His exit was final, always. But this time he turned, walked back to her, and dropped his forehead to hers. And I heard him as if his head was bent to my own.

“I need you.”

Her eyes found mine again as that tiny, mischievous smile played on her lips. She slipped her fingers into his beard, kissed him in a performance worthy of an ‘R’ rating, then broke away breathless.

“Let’s call in sick.”

And from that day on, that wicked woman became my dealer in a drug that I’m not sure I’ll ever be strong enough to kick.

I’d never hurt either of them. After all, if they were gone, what would I wish for?

Nothing is quite as colorful and vibrant and real as someone else’s bubble. Even if you have everything you could ever want, there’s someone, somewhere, with more.

For Her, For Him, For Me.

Damien dropped the multi-tool, the heft of it slapping the gravel with a rough thunk. It sparkled in the waning light of dusk, it’s diamond cut ridges reflecting onto the device it laid beside

He had been painted in pinks and purples as we worked, but the sky continued to fade and the light couldn’t reach into his skin any longer. His thin blond hair went flat and gray in the dark, and his flesh, normally peppered with amber freckles that made me want to smell it, taste its spice, now took on the mottled simplicity of quarry stone.

I watched his fingers work.

“You ready for this, Pickle?”

His voice sliced through me like a hot knife. The beam from his heavy MagLight danced across my face, blinding me for a second before he lowered it again.

His torch blue eyes held me. Like a candle holds a flame, every muscle in my body worked to keep me from flickering.

I stepped toward him and opened my hand for it.

“I am.”

My voice was like a trumpet against the woods, and he slid the device into my grip. My heart raced as his fingers tightened around mine, his body moving closer. A breath caught in my lungs as the vague citrus hint of his cologne mingled with the acrid scent of his sweat.

“Good girl.”

I waited for him to let go, but instead, he pulled me closer. I could taste the cola we’d shared on the drive, still sweet and thick on my tongue, and wondered if it would taste different on his. The ruddy fullness of his lips made me tighten my grip on the black box, as it fell to my side.

His fingers rose to the back of his neck, unfastening the thick chain that sat there, a tiny vendor key hanging just between his collarbones on his slender but toned chest. When they came around my own neck, refastening the clasp, my thighs pressed together involuntarily.

Touching the small round shaft of the key, I wondered if he’d felt my heart racing beneath my breasts. If my unsteady breath was obvious. If I would collapse from the weight of my want combined with the heft of the responsibility he was placing around my neck.

His voice in my ear was just like an electric bass, strumming right through me.

“When you come back to me, I’ll give you something better.”

A film of smoke was the only evidence of the poison pumping out of that wretched place. He’d slid the gas mask over my face as he whispered my instructions. I knew some of the others received instructions too, but mine were different. And he wasn’t with any of them.

I felt it. When he spoke about the conspiracy, what they were doing to us, I felt the delicate wire of synchronicity between our souls. It wasn’t just physical attraction.

But I wasn’t naive. I knew his fingers dipped into the coffers of his other followers’ desires. I also knew that we all wanted him so desperately because of the melanocortins this plant pumped into the air, water and food.

As I stared up at the massive stacks, holding the device that would either change our existence forever or kill us all in one night, the doubt started to creep up my spine again.

My momma had worked in there. She loved that job.

Or so they said.

She died in her sleep. But they didn’t know I’d seen them. They didn’t know I had her diary. They didn’t know what she’d left for Damien and I to figure out.

I looked up into the trees and saw him.

His smile pushed down all the doubt. All the fear. All the hate.

It was all for him.

The train approached must faster than we thought it would. I thought someone might have seen me, I thought someone might try to stop it. But there was no one.

Just Damien. And me.

His mouth at my neck and his fingers between my legs.

The first explosion was beautiful. The second deafening.

Then, everything just collapsed.

Except me. And my momma’s mask.

Damien died on top of me. He made me leave on the mask.

“I know you thought it was for me, Pickle. But it was always for you. It was all for you.”



The Last Bite

Snow White by AniMal-e
Snow White by AniMal-e via DeviantArt.com

There are moments in life when your children stop being tiny extensions of you. They come in minutes at first. Then days. Weeks. Months.

Molly refused to let me hold her after her second birthday. Balling her little fists and bellowing in defiance, her hot, sour breath blasting me in the face whenever I attempted to pick her up.

“I do it. No grab me.”

Her independence was a double edge sword, driving her to develop maturity beyond her years. It made caring for her simple, but I longed for her affection. My best friend’s daughter would splay her fingers across her mommy’s cheeks and whisper. It made my heart ache.

I soaked up cuddles brought on by fevers and earaches, cherished moments instead of anxious interruptions. I may have wished for nightmares, relishing in her need for me during the lonely hours of the night after her father left us.

By the time she became a freshman in high school, however, our lives ran in parallel. I had swallowed the bitter pill of resentment because it was candy coated in the freedom to go out on weeknights or spend long weekends in the mountains without worrying. I trusted her in a way most parents wouldn’t.

She crawled into my bed that night, waking me from a sound sleep, my mind couldn’t process the adrenaline that pulsed through my system.

She smelled of leaves and the clean, electric scent of rain. Her skin was wet but warm where I lifted the backs of my fingers to feel her forehead. Instead of brushing me away, she buried her face in my chest.

“What’s wrong, Mol?”

A broken, breathy sob shook her whole body as she crumpled handfuls of my nightshirt and pulled herself further into me like she might hide beneath my flesh.

“Molly, you’re scaring me. What happened?”

I reached over the sliver of bed she occupied to click on my side lamp. She shrank further into the bedding and her sobs grew harder and faster.

As my eyes adjusted, I tried to push her back so I could see her face. She clung and fought, but the livid purple color of her cheekbone gave fury to my need to see.

“What the- Molly, look at me. Now.”

She turned into the pillow releasing a hiccuping groan but exhaled in surrender, turning red-rimmed, storm gray eyes toward me.

The left side of her face was one giant, swollen, mottled bruise. Her lip and brow were split and clotted. Clumps of mud matted her hair.

“How bad is it, mom?”

She choked on the words, a breathy whisper working against the parched rasp of her normal voice. She peered up at me, trembling, and I met her gaze with an instinct I’d thought disappeared long ago.

“Just bruises and cuts,” I lifted my fingertips to run over her damaged skin. “But no broken bones, I think. We’ll see the doctor tomorrow to be sure.”

I kept my voice steady and soft, despite the rage that boiled inside my veins.

“What happened, baby? Who did this?”

Fear flashed in her watery eyes before she buried herself in my breast again. I pushed down every urge in my being, knowing the best thing I could do was stay with her. But the need to say something was strong.

“You cannot let him get away with it.”

She sobbed for a long time, clinging like I was a life preserver. In the muted light, I stared at the picture on my night table behind her. A preschooler swinging her feet on either side of a massive branch, up high in a big old tree in front of an orchard we’ve visited a dozen times.

Molly was holding a huge red apple, the size of a man’s fist, three perfect, round bites already missing from its flesh.

She climbed that tree by herself at four and a half years old, ate that entire apple, plus half of another she picked for me, and wouldn’t even let me help her down.

When I looked back down at my little girl, now a brazen, vicious teenager, she stared back at me with wide eyes, blood in her teeth.

I pried her hands loose from their grip on my shirt and examined them. Three nails broken past the quick, knuckles cracked and bloodied, her right index finger broken.

She swallowed, gazing at the backs of her hands as she flexed her fingers.

“He didn’t get away with it.”

The Brothel

Haunted House by darkmatterzone
Haunted House by darkmatterzone via DeviantArt.com

The walls seemed to be breathing. Ugly, stained brocade peeling from the plaster shifted as the wind squealed through the broken glass of the old attic window. In the dark, he could barely see the figure. Like an absence of light in a room streaked with moonlight.

It moved toward him, somehow bending the light away. Repelling it by some unnatural means. He lifted his flashlight, but the bulb popped and hissed, leaving the space between them even darker than it had been.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

He took several gulps of stale air as the temperature dropped.

“Why are you-“

The room seemed to swallow the sound, choking off his voice until he lifted his fingers to his mouth, confirming it was still there.

The house shifted and swelled. Romeo’s brain hurt as though it were working without him. He brought his fingers to his temples, but the thing forced him to his knees.

He’d lived there as a child. The house was huge and dark, and the old musty wall tapestry had always felt alive. When he was young, however, it was the breath and laughter of all those women that brought it to life. Incense and perfume hung in clouds through every room. Its purpose had been to mask the bleachy, musky smells that would have otherwise permeated the air. But it had given birth to a sensory soaked existence, a daily lesson in manners and chivalry, the playful molding of a young boy’s identity in a place he simply didn’t belong.

Romeo had been named for his father, or so that was the story. But he never knew a father figure until Charles came to the house one evening to bleed the radiators.

There had been other men. The ladies called them suitors, but Romeo was not a dim kid. His mother’s room was directly below his, and he’d understood from a very young age that this was all business. He’d understood so well that, as Charles went from room to room, floor to floor, making repairs, Romeo was careful to follow him and watch his every move.

“How old are you, buddy?”
“Eight and a half.”
“You protectin’ these ladies?”

His chuckle bristled Romeo’s spine, drawing his face into a venomous scowl before he stepped toward the stranger, rivetting him with a stare that made his answer unnecessary.

“There ain’t no freebies here.”

Charles had lifted his hands, holding them palms out as he rocked back on his heels to rise from a low squat.

“Hey now, you’ll have no problems with me, kiddo. I’m just a handyman. I’m only here to fix the heat.”

There had been something in his tone that changed Romeo’s mind. It wasn’t instant, as he’d seen too many arrogant jokers in and out of these rooms, leaving behind bruises and twenty dollar bills that should’ve been hundreds. It was hard to believe there were any good guys out there. But what Charles taught him that night was far more important than how to repair the radiators and seal the windows with insulating tape.

It was almost 9 o’clock when he sat down at the kitchen table with him for a cup of milk and a slice of Molly’s spice cake.

“This your homework?”

With a mouthful, all Romeo could do was nod. But in the following twenty minutes, the repairman checked his work, showed him an easier way to do division, and managed to get himself an invitation to dinner the next night.

“As long as it’s ok with your momma.”

Romeo was so used to not talking to his mother, the statement surprised him. She was wiry, strung out and unfocused. She had a lot of suitors, in order to pay for the pills that kept her up and put her down, and if he had to tell the truth, he didn’t like her much.

But Molly, she had been his favorite. When he was small, he thought she must have been a fairy or at least part fairy. She moved like she was made of water or vapor, and she practically glimmered in the red robe cinched around her tiny waist with a satin bow.

When he was four, he asked if she wore it to hide her wings.

She’d giggled and scooped him into her arms, whispering in his ear.

“They are magical, my Romeo. They hide themselves.”

That night, in the kitchen with Charles, she wore a pair of black capris and a red sweater. But she still looked and moved as though she had wings.

She’d blushed and giggled, explaining that she wasn’t Romeo’s mother, but that she knew it would be fine.

The next night, she wore a crimson dress with black polka dots, and Romeo might have told her he wished he was older so he could ask her on a date.

Charles got the privilege instead.

In the year that followed, Romeo learned what it meant to be a man. He grew six inches that summer, and though he was only nine, he stood as tall as most thirteen-year-olds and was just as smart.

But Molly held him on her lap through the funeral, mopping his tears with her tissues and rubbing his back as though he were much younger than the sight of him announced.

Charles stood behind them, his hand resting on Romeo’s shoulder, letting his own tears slide down his cheeks.

Not for the corpse that was laid in a pine box in front of them, but the life of a boy who might be lost to the wind after this.

The state hadn’t wanted him to stay with Molly. Whether they could prove it or not, everyone knew what that house had been. What went on there. But Charles had a friend who knew a lawyer and scraped together enough money for a home of his own. And a ring.

They were married by a judge on a Friday, and they moved in with him on Saturday. It took months of legal battles, counseling sessions, and psychiatric evaluations, but when no one came forward to claim him, Romeo became eligible for adoption.

So, one completely anticlimactic afternoon, he became legally theirs.

But they had already been a family. Right from that first night.

The cold bit into his cheeks as his blood throbbed in his ears. He tried to look up, his lips pleading with no voice. But the roar of silence crushed him down further so that he lay crumpled, like a fetus, on the floor.

The visions spilled from his mind like water from an overflowing cup. Some incredible force surged through him, pinning him harder and tighter to the floorboards.

The oxygen in the room was depleted. The realization that he was suffocating made his mind swim with terror. But he couldn’t die. Not until he found her.

He focused on what had brought him here. The phone call from Molly, talking about the house, telling him how it was finally going to be bulldozed after seventeen years. Her voice had been so strange, so distant. Like she was in a trance.

She said she was there, giving it one last look. Trying to find the happy times where none were to be found.

But there had been. So many joyous moments were had in that place, only brought to a halt by a fire that managed to take only the life of the lost soul who caused it.

Memories of blanket forts, chess games, math quizzes, and dancing in their pajamas in the firelight scoured over him like sandpaper.

Her words had been clipped, muffled. Peppered against a static that sounded like alien breath.

And then she said the one thing he’d never, ever imagined she would say.

“Sometimes I wish I had never adopted you.”

The silence that had followed was as thick as oil. No static, no breath. But then, a scream that sent him running for the door as fast as his feet would carry him.

He realized now, it wasn’t her. And it sparked a recollection of something said with equal hatred when he was very small. A memory Molly never wanted him to have.

“I wish I had never had you.”

He had been vying for his mother’s attention as toddlers do, begging for something. What was it?


The word hung in the space around him, stopping time and wind and breath. He could smell the wax, feel it on his fingers. He remembered, after that day, he only ever drew Molly. That was the day he first wished he was hers.

A rage larger than the house threw him back, pinning him to the wall this time as the creaking, shrieking walls tried to expand to hold it.

It seared into him like the stings of a thousand scorpions, dumping poison into his bloodstream and making him wretch, and writhe. Hatred funneled into him from all directions before twisting, pulling back, threatening to rip him to pieces.

He clenched his fists and looked at the figure, glaring into the blackness until, finally, he could see.

The walls around them began to buckle with the building pressure, but he gazed deep into the vaccum and pushed himself free of the wall, he shouted.

“What did you do with her? Where is my momma?”

The figure before him shook with fury, black eyes burned into him, but still he moved toward it.

The thing released a feral roar causing the house to vibrate then flex inward before it drew in an airless breath and raised hands of reverse flames.

Fire without heat, blue and black tongues licked outward, stealing the light and oxygen once again. Bearing down on him, the dark mass grew and seethed. Its eyes were obsidian slivers set in flesh so black, he hadn’t been able to see the resemblance before.

He couldn’t speak to tell it. He couldn’t even cough or choke as the smoke from its flames siphoned the life from his body.

Instead, he closed his eyes. And prayed.

Not for himself, but for the life of another. Molly.

Please, let it have been fake. Please let Momma be alive. 

He was chanting the prayer in his mind, his heart beating too loudly in his ears to hear the phantom’s whispers.

He prayed she’d never been there, that this was just like the other times he was drawn to this place by some need he could never quite meet. He’d called his parents home from the gas station, hoping Charles would answer groggily and tell him Molly was asleep. But it just rang and rang, seventeen times before Romeo climbed back into his dad’s old truck.

The fact that they hadn’t answered was the reason he was there, dying, right now.

And as he prayed that this thing had only somehow impersonated his momma, he heard her voice, calling his name from downstairs.

He was sure his brain had begun to falter from lack of oxygen. But when Charles’s voice boomed from below as well, he opened his eyes.

Romeo drew up whatever strength he had left and threw himself at the monster.

It was as simple as tackling smoke. Diminished by the presence of others or by his pure will to defeat it, he found nothing but air beneath him, and as he stood, gasping and clutching his chest, he stared down at the blackness seeping into and filling the cracks of the floorboards beneath his feet.

“Romeo, sweetheart? Are you up there?”

He turned and met her on the stairs, shimmering like a fairy in the moonlight. Then he looked back at the absence of light in his old room.

As impotent as a ghost as she had been in life.

He hadn’t thought of his birth mother in many years.

And as they took the steps back down to Charles, he promised himself he wouldn’t again.

For many, many more.




Beyond the Microscope

Waiting room by Jozefmician via DeviantArt.com

Analise stepped into the waiting room, feeling a bit lighter than she’d left it. She exhaled weeks of anxious waiting, and her sigh shifted her husband’s gaze from the tiny screen in the palm of his hand.

Curt slid the phone into his pocket and straightened in his chair.

“Well? What did he say?”

She sat down next to him holding the papers out for him to read. He frowned before taking them.

“I’d rather you tell me.”

His tone was soft but firm, the gravel in his timber stealing any emotion from his voice.

She’d loved that stoic depth when they were dating. He’d seemed impenetrable, unshakable. She didn’t witness a crack in his armor until their wedding day, but once she saw it, she desperately wanted what was underneath.

He was never prepared for that, though.

It had taken him two months to ask her on a date, but only four to propose. And after they said their vows on his 29th birthday, he’d whispered a hundred times that night that she was the best present ever.

Her sister had warned her not to expect the honeymoon to last forever. But when she woke, naked and tangled in hotel sheets two days after her wedding to find him showered and dressed, reading a newspaper and guzzling coffee, she hid her disappointed tears beneath the shower.

It wasn’t that he was ever unkind. In fact, he was the perfect gentleman. But she rarely got the glimpses of that man who was so smitten he couldn’t take his eyes off her on her wedding day. She could probably count them on her hands.

She sighed, looking up into his bright, cool eyes.

“Well, he said I need to have a procedure to remove the growths, but he says it isn’t cancer.”

In a flash so fast she almost missed it, his face crumpled with relief before settling back to his normal, stony expression.

“So they are growths, but not tumors.”

A statement, not a question. But not without a tremor in his voice.

She’d lived too long with the desperation to make him feel, and had been defeated too many times by his dismissals and robotic responses. So she hadn’t tried to see beyond his shell for a very long time.

Suddenly, it was all she could see. “Were you worried?”

His eyebrows knitted together, for a moment glaring at her furiously. But his words came out in a choked whisper. “Of course.”

Twenty-four years, two kids, two houses, a dozen cars, a handful of tragedies, and she’d never seen tears in this man’s eyes until today.

“I’m not a boulder, Ana.”

It wasn’t the first time he declared this, pointing at his chest in defiance. She’d said to him a few times during the first few years of their marriage that he must be made of stone. The first time he’d said he wasn’t, they were watching Titanic. He’d wrapped his arm around her as she sobbed, staring at the screen in disbelief when Leonardo DeCaprio froze. She’d looked up at him, startled, and his face blanched as if she’d struck him.

She realized now that it had always been those moments where she experienced some significant emotion that she caught those glimpses inside his heart.

He smiled so broadly the day she first held her son that she thought his lips might crack. He shook with fury the day a drunk driver had sideswiped her, forcing her off the road and into a ditch.

When she’d stood on the kitchen table, shaking in terror as a mouse raced across her kitchen floor, he’d stalked that pest like a lion hunting prey to feed his family.

And when she told him she had been to the doctor for a biopsy, he held her so tightly that night that she had to tell him she couldn’t breathe.

“You’ve been a bundle of nerves for weeks, of course I was worried.”

Lifting her fingers to his cheek, she longed to push him for more. To let her tug off that armor and snuggle into the softness she so desperately had hoped was underneath. Or warm herself against the fire he kept secretly to himself.

But, as her heart pummeled against her lungs, she knew that would only encourage him deeper into himself. So, she kissed him quickly before taking back the papers and folding them into a little packet.

“Ok. Well, the biopsy came back clear. But the growths are fibrous polyps and my endometrial lining is very thick. They will have to do a D&C, do you know what that is?”

“That’s what you had after Joel.”

The memory of Joel’s birth and the hemorrhaging that had followed burned behind his eyes.

“Yes, but this will be scheduled in advance and without all the hysterics.” She giggled, covering her mouth with her fingers. “Quite a bit less dramatic.”

He slumped and laid a hand on her knee. “Less scary, you mean.”

Lifting her eyes to meet his, she held her breath for a moment.

“I thought I was going to lose you that morning, Ana.”

She’d never thought about what that day had been like for Curt. Her whirlwind first pregnancy filled with difficulties, followed by an emergency cesarean birth. She barely remembered the bleeding or the surgery that followed. She barely remembered any of it, truthfully. The memory of Curt handing her Joel 24 hours later overlaid everything else. The bliss of motherhood giving her amnesia to everything that had happened in the days and even weeks leading up to that moment.

She stared at him for a long moment. “You’re not going to lose me now, either.”

His face went slack before his eyes widened almost imperceptibly. “Good.”

It was hardly a word, more of a release of breath pushed through the crack in his facade. She dropped her fingers to wrap around his in her lap, then drew her leg up beneath her so she could lean into him.

She thought about the way she’d always examined those cracks in his exterior, as if through a microscope. Trying to find a way in.

She’d been missing the fact that she was already in.

Every morning, he rose before her, showered and dressed, then waited for her to wake, ready with a cup of Earl Grey with two sugars. She focused on the fact that he wasn’t in bed with her instead of the big picture.

He held both of their babies for days before she could, but handed them over without question once her body and heart could handle it. She’d envied how they idolized him as they grew, and spent countless hours quietly at his side building, fixing, and painting. But if she’d just stepped back, perhaps she would’ve understood that he was keeping them out of her hair.

He never wanted to take exotic vacations, always opting for weekend trips to the country or the beach. But maybe it was never about the money or time off work. Maybe he just wanted to keep them safe and close.

Everything she ever saw as a dismissal could’ve been his simple way of showing how much he cared.

Reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear, she watched his eyes follow her fingers, and she saw the same glow in his eyes that he’d seen on her wedding day.

“They will call me to schedule the procedure.”

She went on in a soft voice, to explain the surgery center and the outpatient procedure that should only leave her a bit sore for a few days. She slipped her hand under his arm and pressed her cheek against his shoulder. After she’d finished, he sighed another affirmative and pressed his lips against the top of her head.

“Let’s go somewhere nice for lunch. I’m in the mood for pasta.”

She looked up at him, her forehead lined with confusion. “Don’t you have to go back to work?”

Curt shook his head and kissed her again, this time on the bridge of her nose. “No. You’re stuck with me for the whole afternoon.”

“But- You don’t have to do that. I mean- You never miss work.”

“Yeah, well. I don’t always find out if my wife has cancer or not, either.”

Scanning his face, Analise grinned broadly as tears pricked her eyes.

“Thank you.”

He shook his head again as she hugged his bicep again. But then he stood, pulling her into his arms and holding her there long enough that she heard the nurses sigh and whimper behind the counter. He pulled back and cleared his throat, wiping his eyes with his thumb.

Raising up on her tip toes, she wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Let’s go home instead.” Pressing her lips to his ear, she told him she would make him pasta.

“Then you can take me to bed.”


A Warm Touch by NovaMcKnight
A Warm Touch by NovaMcKnight via DeviantArt.com

His skin burned bright with the desire surfacing from within. The fire in his soul a damp, red sun fueling the hunger in his touch, made more intense by the pink heat of the desert outside.

I often wondered if he’d ever cool down. But even after decades, his want had never abated. Even through the trials of war which desiccated everything we knew. Years of chasing and being chased by devils. Our marriage peppered with miscarriages followed by months of devastation. Nothing ever made him see me differently. He always treated me the same. He wanted me just the same. And no matter where we were, in the frozen city where we met, the icy ridges of the mountains where he had hidden me, the stormy beaches we’d traveled looking for peace, or this dessert, cooled by the nuclear winter, he was always warm.

It was habitual for us, the way he would take me every Friday evening. Some might say such a routine is unromantic, even tedious. But when he came home, stalking me through the house like an animal before pouncing, pinning and devouring me, monotony was the furthest thing from my mind.

Collapsing onto my side on the kitchen floor, giggling as his whiskers tickled my shoulder and sighing when his arms folded around me from behind, I watched the sky burn away into an amethyst haze.

“I missed you, Mrs.”

Squirming around in his embrace, I flipped over to face him and hold his salted jaw between my hands.

“Since you’re filthy and sweating all over my clean floor, I’m not sure I can say the same.”

His fingers raked through my damp hair as he chuckled.

“That sass doesn’t make me want to clean up any faster.”

His hand wound around my golden tresses, tugging lightly to raise my eyes so that I looked into his. They were as clear and brilliant as they’d ever been. But, something new had taken residence in his stare. Something that traced cool fingers down my spine. Something that held more weight than I thought was possible in his gaze. Something that made me swallow hard against the lump of empathy growing in the pit of my stomach.

“What’s wrong, Mister?”

As a General in the Gulf Militia, Ant had carried the responsibility of thousands of lives, hundreds of thousands, for decades. The heft hardens most men. Makes them power drunk or breaks them completely. But Ant had lived through the war that broke the Earth, and stood before the council of what was left of our world’s leaders with all the heart and devotion of a little boy dreaming of being president.

There were fourteen of them left. In the famine and fury of worldwide revolution, thousands of military and government leaders had been killed or fled. The death toll after ten years of post-nuclear fighting surpassed the actual nuclear attacks. But fourteen men and women found a way to finally settle the chaos.

My Ant was one of them.

“Do you remember when we came here? You’d told me we should make our home in the center of this dead land.” I nodded, searching a reason for that memory. “You said that it didn’t matter if America was gone. And you said-.”

His eyes were wet and he choked on the recollection.

“I said the world would be our country someday and that Texas could be it’s heart.”

We’d traveled all over the continent. The bombs had turned the east and west coasts to rubble, and the fallout from the concentration of attacks in the east reached as far as the Mississippi River. The north had been plunged into a nightmarish nuclear winter that made so much of the continent uninhabitable. And what was left of the western states after the collapse of California was dismal.

But Texas had been warm. And it simply felt right.

“Yes, Mrs. And you were so very right.”

Tears slipped down the ridge of his nose as he pulled my forehead to his.

“You’re scaring me, Ant. What is wrong? What has happened?”

I pulled away, praying silently that there wasn’t more war coming.

But as he shook his head and pulled me tightly into his arms, I knew it was something worse.

I didn’t cry. I’d known my whole life that being loved by him was more than any poor frostbitten orphan could have ever dreamed. I’d known after each lost pregnancy, seen it in the disappointed eyes of all of his soldiers. I’d felt it in the furious storm of security that swaddled me each time we went out. And more than anything, I’d heard it from my own heart.

The troubles weren’t his, which was rare in this post-apocolypse. My doctors, fertility specialists, nutritionists, anyone who had seen the scans knew it was my body that could not accept pregnancy.

If there’d never been any bombs, we would have simply hired a surrogate.

But if there had never been a bomb, my family would have lived. And I wouldn’t have endured the countless rapes that destroyed my body before Ant rescued me.

Irony is the cruelest joke.

“Is there already another?”

My voice was mist leaving my lungs. I felt myself dying inside as his arms tightened further around me.

“There could never be another.”

I pushed against his chest as my mind crumpled and my heart flew. My face ached with confusion and unshed tears. I glared into his eyes willing him to somehow split into two men so that no choice ever needed to be made.

“They want me to plant my seed, yes. But I can’t-.”

He averted his eyes as he choked on the thoughts and wishes of others.

“Until death parts us. That was my vow.”

An exhausted and prickly relief washed over me. I clung to him tightly as he picked up my broken body, carrying us both to bed. He was so warm, and as I burrowed deep into that warmth, I tried to push everything down.

But I knew what I was depriving the world of. I knew the only solution was to deprive him of the choice.

We made love three more times that night. He slept fitfully as I planned and plotted. When he woke, he talked about where we could go, how we could hide. But there was no way I could keep him from the world we’d built. Rebuilt. Created from almost nothing.

When I finally fell asleep, I dreamt of a beautiful girl with tawny skin and raven hair, looking exactly like her father as she picked flowers in a sandy meadow. She had my eyes, and held my cheeks in her tiny hands.

“You won’t make it through, Momma. But I will take care of him. Don’t worry.”

Her tiny smile told me more than words ever could have. So when I awoke to the barrel of a handgun at my cheek, I simply closed my eyes again and said my last, living prayer.

I never got to meet her, his beautiful little flower. But the gunshot only killed my brain.

She was barely as big as his hand when they had to take her from my body. But she burned with the same fire as Ant, and survived with my will and determination.

And her life gave hope to a hopeless world.





bedtime stories by dyingrose24
bedtime stories by dyingrose24 via DeviantArt.com

There used to be a time when people worked for something greater than money. Something akin to fame, with the same kind of pride but more divine. Something that cannot be faked or bought. But once you feel it, you want more and you want to try to make others feel it too.

It also used to be easy to find people who wanted to work for the accomplishment of working. The world was simpler and the fruits of labor were sweet.

I paid fair wages and even offered benefit packages to my full-time employees. But the truth is, working for me was far more about the accomplishments than anything else. I wasn’t looking to replace anyone but walked through life with an open mind and a craving for something more, someone great.

Daphne was just that.

Alan had hired her during the holidays at his hardware store, but as post-Christmas cleanup drew to a close, he couldn’t keep her on.

“I’d love to have her around just for the cleaning if I could afford it. But she’s better than that.”

We sat in his office upstairs smoking a couple of white owls and knocking back the last of a bottle of Glenrothes, an odd but pleasant combination.

The window looking out over the shop was now free of the twenty-year-old film it used to wear and the arms of the old swivel chair I sat in were polished to a gleam I wouldn’t have thought they could carry. I could clearly see the impact she had engineered all over his place.

Looking down into the empty shop, there were examples all over of her presence, all of which lit up like light bulbs popping to life. Ideas were my business, and someone with that kind of work ethic at a measly fifteen hour a week job was an idea just waiting to be born.

Before she arrived for her interview, I asked Sandra to let her into my office but not tell her where to sit. It’s a tell of a person’s character to have to choose their own seat. Men typically sit down in one of the straight back chairs perched in front of my desk or one of the armchairs to the left of it, obvious choices as suitable places for an interview. Women often perch on the edge of the sofa in front of the window so that they might see the door open and stand to greet me.

I knew Daphne was different right away. When I entered the office seven minutes after her arrival, she was standing before my bookshelf, invested in a pale blue, handbound book of french poetry. A gift from long ago that I could have never forgotten was there.

After I stepped in and closed the door, she turned toward me, but her gaze continued to dart across the handwritten page until she sighed and closed it lightly. She looked up with eyes that gleamed like a woman twice her age, but a smile that I might have expected a child caught in the cookie jar to wear.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Mr. Stanley. It just-,” she turned and slipped the book back into its place. “What a wonderfully sad gift, it just called to me. I apologize.”

I was unable to withdraw my surprise. “You can read French?”

Her cheeks warmed like Gala apples, but her voice was clear and unfettered by my shock. “I can and do. I love French novels. Sorel, Voltaire and everyone in between. But a present like that, so personal. So private-,” her voice sank soft and low, “You shouldn’t keep that in your office.”

I looked up at the ceiling, bobbing my head from side to side before looking back down and leaning in, lowering my own volume. “I certainly never expected a stranger to peruse my private library.”

Swallowing and straightening her shoulders, she took a step forward. “Daphne Reynolds, sir. I am simply thrilled to have the opportunity to interview with you. I sincerely apologize for the invasion of your privacy.”

A young woman reading French poetry at 18 is not perhaps the most impressive thing in the world in 1965, but with only a high school education and a mountain of brothers at home, it was intriguing, to say the least.

We conversed for twenty minutes about her skills and experience, and of course the book. Nothing rattled her, she answered every question barely blinking, even when I wondered at her relationship status.

“Well, Mr. Stanley, I am in the precarious position of being too smart for my own good, as my father likes to say. But to be truthful, I’m simply bored by the boys my own age. And since I had the distinct honor to be born into an era where I am not only allowed to, but even encouraged to work, I would like to do something with myself before allowing myself to be tied down to a house and children.”

“You want to find a career? That’s a tall order for a young lady without a diploma.”

She looked down at her hands, chewing on the inside of her lip, then looked up and moved to the edge of the little club chair she’d decided upon once encouraged to sit.

“I want to give myself the opportunity to feel the earth beneath my feet before allowing someone to sweep me off of them.”

I chuckled but she held my gaze. Deep blue sapphires carefully lined and highlighted beneath her tall brassy blond coif, swept across her forehead and flipped perfectly at the shoulders. She had dressed for the part, undoubtedly in her mother’s best suit and heels.

But she was not a child playing dress up before heading home to read bedtime stories to her siblings.

I offered her the position that Friday, and she started on the following Monday.

The newspaper was printed at a press on Suffolk Ave., but the writing and piecing together happened all over the city. It was never about the hours at your desk or word quotas or advertising dollars, not for me. It was all for the exhilaration of going to print.

I rarely ever read my own paper. But the crazy intoxication of getting it ready to read, that was my fuel. Daphne became an integral part of it during the next four months. Sometimes you hire people without a position in mind, and after restructuring the mailroom and assisting with a major ad campaign debacle, it was clear that she was assistant editor material.

She was made from the same stuff that presidents and warlords were made of, but smoothed and softened by the delicious curves of femininity. So when she steamrolled over you, you were left sighing and smiling about it.

It was a shimmery first day of May, dew winking in the grass and on every sleek surface as I walked to work at 7am. Daphne, in her feverish need for information, had recently read about the negative effects of sitting all day. She’d already worked her magic over my smoking and drinking, and truth be told, I had no inclination to dismiss anything she brought to me.

She met me on Hudson, smiling broadly as I offered my arm. “It’s such a beautiful day, I’m going to pretend I don’t see the powdered sugar on your tie, Roger.”

“Only tooth powder, my dear. I haven’t touched a donut in at least a day.”

Her laugh chimed through the crisp spring air like the song of a harp. It stole my next step, and when she turned to face me after my sudden stop, I felt the earth slip from beneath my feet.

Her smile softened as her eyes met mine. Concern drew tiny vertical lines between her brows and she let her hand slip from the inside of my arm. Stepping forward and tilting her head, she asked me what was wrong. Or I think she did. I could only hear my own pulse thumping in my ears.

“Your eyes remind me so much of my wife’s.”

Jeanne had been 19 when we married. She was wild and flippant but loved me with a passion that locked down my heart so tightly that I was sure no one would ever break it out. She wanted babies immediately when I brought her to America after I finished my third year in the Army, but struggled to hold a pregnancy.

After each miscarriage, she would huddle beneath the sheets for days, scribbling away in her journal. Or what I thought was her journal. It was two days after losing her fifth pregnancy that I found out what she had been writing during those terrible times.

It was a pale blue linen stretched book. Inscribed with her suicide note. And embedded with a special kind of torture that I would inflict upon myself repeatedly for over a decade.

It would have been such a beautiful gift if she had been there to share it with me all those years.

Daphne stood listening to me blabber about that book that had drawn her to care for me in a special way, to know me in a way most people don’t, to see me like only my beloved ever had.

“I’ve read it, you know.” Her lips quivered slightly at the admission. “I’ve read it and reread it, cover to cover.”

“And yet, here you stand.”

I don’t doubt the world thought me a fool. At my age, some pretty young thing harbors a fascination like hers and longs to take care of me, I could’ve had a whole new life.

After all, Jeanne brought her to me for a reason. In that dusty old blue book, she didn’t just write our past.

She wrote my future.

But I saw a different future for Daphne. The heart of a poet and philosopher with the brain of a businessman and the face of an angel, she didn’t need to be tied to a house and family.

She needed to be free to feel the earth beneath her feet as long as humanly possible.

So instead of giving her my love, I gave her my newspaper. A purpose.

And she never forgave me until she received her own book of poetry, a million years later.

But not a day too late.