Today I am Collective

The Story

St. Minnie’s.

Charming, cozy, needs a little TLC!

Small. Old. Crumbling.

So close to nature!

The local wildlife are gonna fight you in the kitchen.

Perfect for a family just starting out!

Perfect for an idiot who parts well with their money.

Emilia knew the tactics, and the words between the lines, well. She had been through 16 condos, 34 houses, and 97 different Zillow searches to get here, in this dreary entrance, of an abandoned church the owners had attempted to convert to a home-stay. Apparently, those owners had run away screaming.

From where she stood, there was a rolled up rose-colored carpet that once graced the entryway, leading hopeful sinners into the sanctuary. The graying wood underneath was rough and badly marred, but Emilia bet that the experienced house-flippers had gasped with joy at the site of real ash flooring, and the thought of its silver swirls glistening under a little buffing. The ceiling in the hallway was about twelve feet high, teasing an echo that grew in the narthex at about fourteen. Windows along the wall had already been retaken by the bodies of fallen mayflies, as well as moss and just the general green-brown dust Emilia associated with all old things. But underneath. Oh underneath, there stood the old-world glass in every single pane. So lovingly made, still bending the light with their hues of deep blues, aching reds, and reaching shouts of yellow. Not like new, cheap windows in the sold-out churches with their yelling and their politics- but truly stained panels. One Emilia was particularly drawn to depicted a clam, proudly presenting its pearl at the top of a mountain. She gently wiped her finger over the smooth oval until its iridescence was clear of debris, and it could make its rainbows along the floor without hindrance once again.

Why had the owners run away screaming? Well the real estate agent tried to drama it up with all the ghost stories of the region, how the St. Minerva Church had once been the home to a leading pastor of southern witch trials, and there’d been a witch who’d cursed him and the land and the town and your momma and blah blah blah.

Emilia’s inspector pointed out that it was more likely the black mold in the hall bathroom. Emilia was inclined to agree, especially since Klokville was no where near the geographical belt of witch trials. Other horrible historical mistakes? Perhaps. But not those ones.

She was inclined, however, to also agree that there may be… something among the old ripped out pews and half-redone wall sconces.

And this is why, against her inspector’s, parents’, friends’, and honestly her own, advice, she put down the only offer the building had seen in five years.

Within the hour, she received a resounding “yesthankyoukeysunderthematbye.”

“Sugar, you wan’ us to go up tha with ya while you get ya settled in?”

“Thanks Aunt Lu, but I think the first time I go into my house, I want to walk in there myself.”

“Just like your grandmama, bless her. Gotta run before you walk! Richard! Are you gonna let your baby go’on up there by herself with that big trailer?!”

“No, Aunt Lu,” Emilia’s father called from the small apartment kitchen, where he’d been hiding most of the afternoon, “She said me and her mom could come up with the truck next week. But you heard her.”

“Mmmm.” Aunt Lu turned her steel blue eyes on Emilia, where she knelt on the floor taping the last box marked ‘knick-knacks, office’ closed. They held the look for a long moment, and then Aunt Lu winked and went back to ordering the poor moving men around.

Aunt Lu was actually Emilia’s great Aunt Lu. She had lived with Emila’s grandmother Hilda and grandpa Joseph just about all her life. But when they both passed, first Joe, then Hilda, Aunt Lu came to live with her nephew Richard, his wife Betty, and their kids when Emilia was a freshman in high school. Lu and Emilia had bonded quite quickly over their grief for Hilda, their love of antiques, and their hatred of green beans.

Six.

Six nails completely chipped and gone to hell. What was the point of paying all that extra money for the gel-dip stuff if it couldn’t even stand up to hauling a hatchback full of boxes, putting together a bed frame, cleaning an entire kitchen of dust and grime, explaining to a family of bats that yes they were cute and yes a professional bat-house had been added to the Amazon list but no they cannot stay in what is now a human bedroom, and scrambling together a grilled cheese?! Emilia thought it was ridiculous, and was glad she left her old nail-lady in her last town. Perhaps downtown Klokville would have someone more suited for the task.

And perhaps, after finishing said grilled cheese, she should freshen up and go downtown. Window shop for a new nail place, the local favorite pub, and start on the search on that something-in-law she’d promised her mother.

But she felt it was time to truly introduce herself, now that the place was really hers.

The pearl in the window cast its light out in front of her. The difference now was, the window belonged to Emilia.

She stepped softly through the hallway, passing into the Narthex. The silver ash wood did indeed seem to shiver its silver at her. She promised it that she’d buff and wax it first thing in the morning. She hummed a few bars of an old Christmas hymn to the vaulted ceiling, and it echoed back to her, just as the narthex of a far away church had, many years ago. So some structure still very much stood.

The pews were all still there in the sanctuary, though now detached from the floor and bent forward to lean on their backs. Like askew little knight templars, kneeling. Emilia hoped this meant that perhaps their hand-embroidered cushions were somehow protected, but she dared not yet check. She touched them each as she walked down the short aisle, her arms extended to either side, as if leaving one out may be rude in some way.

Sunset’s rusty light hummed through the tall stained glass, like a quiet overture. At the end of the aisle, Emilia looked upward, to see two large steel cords, covered in spiderwebs, where there was once most likely a cross suspended between them. She wondered if the house-flippers had moved it, or if antique-scavengers had come upon it in the between years.

Behind the cords were large empty sockets where the organ pipes had once stood. She knew that the organ had been the only thing saved when the church shut down, and it still sang somewhere. The scars of its presence were marked with the occasional bird nest and dust bunny. It appeared if the previous owners had done much work here, Mother Nature had done more since.

But what is a sanctuary, Emilia thought, if not a place where creatures are safe? And she added more bird houses and seed to her growing shopping list. She spotted an odd shadow in the corner, and quickly added another dog house for her father to build when he arrived. That raccoon family would need a slight relocation.

She sighed. There was so much to do. But at least she wasn’t doing it alone.

In the quiet, in the the humming, Emilia spoke.

“Grammy Hilda?”

“Yes, dear. I’m here.”

The Word

Y’all it’s been so long I had to look up which header I used for this. I’m still not sure it’s right. Go with it:

Collective (adj): Done by people acting as a group. (noun): A cooperative enterprise.

Have you taken a peak at Zillow lately? The housing market is really… something. The past two years I have been threatening to leave my whole life behind and go raise goats on a hill, but honestly- I can’t afford the hill! Who can?!

It’s on a miiiild downturn right now (watch me jinx that) but it’s still insane compared to what earlier generations of home buyers dealt with. More young families are turning to townhouses and condos, or attempting to flip old houses. That would be my dream- take a sabbatical from work, and flip a cool piece of property. Mind you my house-flipping resume has three bullet points: Am only 2 degrees from an ACTUALLY successful house flipper, can fix anything wrong with a toilet, and thinks I know colors better than you. That’s it. That’s all I got.

But much like any big project, flipping a big old building can’t be done on your own. Yeah, maybe you have to use just your two hands- but you need someone with you, beside you. Cheerleads are a thing for a reason, you know? Don’t forget that in this world of bootstraps and all-for-one. The other part of that phrase is all-for-one! We need each other.

St. Minnie’s is something I want to turn into long-form. No, don’t worry, I won’t make y’all memorize all these characters too! I just wanted to put this out there, see how it feels. We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming around here (Queen of Diamonds has been UP to stuff! And where did Pepper go?! All in good time…)

Today I am Auxiliary

Hey there, hi, hello! Just joining us at Quilled Sister? Welcome! I like to think all of my stories could stand alone, but you might enjoy this one more once you’ve gotten to know us all better. Can I interest you in Carry (our beginning) or Struck (a standalone)?

The Story

She came into my shop today, and I was on the phone.

It wasn’t really an important phone call. I had just rang up Mother to see how she was, and it turned out her neighbor Marie, who I adore, was over to share some neighborly gossip so they put me on speaker because I love that shit and we’d been chatting for a near 36 minutes while I dusted the higher shelves and sorted receipts.

I’d just pulled out the glass cleaner, and Marie had just started in on Mrs. Cricket’s atrocious lawn ornaments, when the young woman walked into my shop. So I hung up.

Not in embarrassment! It’s my shop, I can be on the phone if I like. There’s no manager for me to report to, or report me to that is. No, I hung up because I just really didn’t want to be on the phone the first time I met the Main Character.

I felt my phone buzzing away in my apron. No doubt the ladies on the other line thought we’d been accidentally cut off, or worse- my mother’s worrywart brain thought the shop was getting robbed. As if Tina’s Trinkets would be where the bank robber would search for his gold! Ha!

But she seemed interested, and that in itself was interesting.

I’d never seen one in person before. All my people were run of the mill people like me. Regular folk tend to gather around other regular folk, and that’s perfectly fine! We had our own problems and excitements, like Mrs. Cricket’s lawn ornaments or a favorite cousin’s wedding. I liked being ordinary. My great aunt once told me that robins were ordinary too- and just listen to them sing. Beautiful. “And look at the heron, Tina! Gorgeous, out standing in the waters like a king. Every artist wants to paint him. But oh how lonely he looks. Best to be a robin in her comfy crowded nest, I think,” she’d said.

But when a heron ever did wade into your side of the pond… it was hard not to stare.

She ran her pale hands along the cases, and I noticed her upper arms were much tanner. Gloves, outside? Such a Main Character quality. I wondered where those gloves were now.

I mentally pinched myself: Get it in gear, Tina!

“Anything I can help you with, dear?”

She jolted- I jolted a bit in return. Do robins and herons have a common language?

Her brown eyes went wide. Now that was odd. I assumed a Main Character would have bright blue eyes, or something unusual like green or gray. But these were still captivating! She held me with them as she stalked towards me, and I realized they weren’t really just brown, but a deep chestnut, with streaks of copper and brass rising out of them. I made a mental note to look closer at my own brown-eyed reflection that evening. Maybe there was more to mine too, wouldn’t that be nice?

“Actually yes, I do need some help if you don’t mind.”

Her voice was familiar, but I knew I had never heard it before. It was just one of those comforting womanly voices. The kind that makes teachers advise one to go into nursing or preaching, the one that draws all the children into the kitchen even when they have their own children. It had a bit of downy softness to it, which I couldn’t tell from youth or recent overuse.

“Of course! What can I find for you today in my little trove of treasures?”

“Well,” she placed her pale hands on the counter in front me, tapping them gently as she peered through the glass below, “I’m looking for something shiny.”

I laughed, “Shiny we can do! Any more particulars?”

She thought for another moment, now splaying out her fingers wide. I noticed her nails were clean, cut short, but unpolished. Another unusual bit. I’d always been a bit jealous of my lunch club ladies, who were able to keep their nail polish unmarred throughout their daily tasks, hobbies, even gardening! Looking down at my own bare fingers, I gave them a little wiggle. Perhaps clean was classy. Neat, graceful. Meant we had rather more important things to tend to.

My store phone rang. I ignored it. It rang again.

“Do you need to get that?” She looked up at me with those intriguing eyes.

“Oh, yes, just a moment,” I reluctantly shifted down the counter to see Mother on the caller ID. I picked it up quickly, “Yes… I’m fine… withacustomercallyoubackinamomentloveyoubyenow.” And shifted back down.

My Main Character customer smiled, “Parent or spouse?”

I smiled back, “Mothers never stop being mothers, dear. Even when you have as many gray hairs as they do!”

I saw a little shadow go across her face, a tension grasp the edge of her smile. Hmm, I touched on part of her Back Story I suppose. What an honor!

After a few heavy moments, she tapped her fingers on the glass once more, decided, and said deliberately lightly, “I think I need a ring, ma’am, don’t you?”

“A lady can’t have too many, and I have plenty of those! Of course they might be a wee bit old fashioned for you, dear,” I started to pull our the cases from under the glass anyway, “If you want something like all the New Age gals are wearing, you’ll have to go to-“

“No, no.” She firmly stopped me, and I was thankful for it. I can’t believe I almost recommended another shop! Main Character or not, a sale was a sale.

“Looking for vintage, then?”

“Yes,” she nodded, and started delicately sorting through the rows of silver-trapped pearls and golden-wrapped gemstones.

I couldn’t help but follow those fingers up, past the strangely spaced tan lines, to the muscle padded shoulders that led under her simple running tank to-

Wait. Running tank?

I drew back a small step. I had been so distracted by her presence as a whole that I had failed to notice she was not dressed at all for a day of browsing shops. Her top was a peachy running tank with sheer sides, and I could see through the glass that her bottoms were plain gray joggers, a pocket on her right side bulging with something oddly shaped. Was it her wallet? Because I saw no purse.

“Is this for…” I began, now uncertain, “a gift?”

“No, I’m treating myself today.” She reached for her waistband, I tensed. My God. My mother was right. I AM getting robbed today. Here I was all giddy about the Main Character in my store, and it was one of those stories. Lord have mercy on my soul, here we go- she’s reaching for it and!

She pulls one of this skinny shrinking fanny packs around to the front of her. Oh.

She smiles up at me reassuringly, as if she has heard the silent fluttering saga that has just occurred on my side of the counter. I’m sure my temple has a bead of sweat on it, but to dot it away would be to admit to my terribly accusing thoughts.

“Well then,” I took the moment to cough, straighten myself out. I could be calm as well, I could be collected too, “if you don’t mind me saying, you have a tone that could go with several different metals, so is there a particular stone you’re looking for?”

“A diamond,” she said immediately. Firmly.

“Oh, I only have small ones of those, we’re just a little shop. This one here in the halo has-“

“I heard,” she whispered, and I couldn’t help but lean in. She was like a magnet! “That you do have a few items kept back for your regulars…” We were so very close, that I was able to admire the very curvature of her nose. Imagine! Admiring someone’s nose. But it is the very middle of someone’s face, isn’t it? I hoped my own wasn’t taking up too much space. My husband, Gary, may he rest in peace, always gave it a big kiss on his way to work, or on the way to golf, or hell, on the way to the bathroom. And it hadn’t gotten one of those old lady warts yet, praise Saint Mary. Come to think of it, I was the only one in my college suite that swore they’d get Botox instead of a nose job at 30! So perhaps I had an admirable nose too. Then it would be perfectly fine to lean in just a little bit further…

“…Now I know I’m not a regular, Mrs. Tina, but if you have a pretty little diamond ring, I promise to pay you better than any of them ever have.”

“Well I-” How did she know about the back stash? And was that her perfume I’d leaned into? It was like a rose, held over a cup of hot spiced tea with cream. “I just do this for fun, it’s not, not really about the money…”

“What is it that you need, then? I’m able to deal in favors as well.”

She pulled back, and it was like a sip of ice cold water.

“Well I-“

“How about we take a look at the other rings you have, and I’ll make an offer, and you think about it? No guarantee on either side, hm?”

That sounded fine. Lots of things sounded fine, actually.

I stepped back behind the register, opened the office door, and took the key from around my neck. I quickly peeked through each box in the safe- I had four diamond rings, but one had a pearl on it. I knew she wouldn’t like that. I don’t know how, but I knew. I brought it anyway.

I displayed the four small boxes on the counter. She pushed the pearl-paired one aside.

It didn’t take long before she pulled the small black-velvet box on the left towards her. Fascinating. I knew what it held without having to turn it around: A early Victorian round with two glaring garnet slit-ovals guarding it on either side. The silver and gold filigree down each side appeared to be thorny vines wrapped around tiny, star-like diamond shards. When I came across it nearly three years ago now, I thought my eccentric art-dealer who loved to spend her ex-husband’s money would want it, but she called it “garish, almost frightening.”

“It’s perfect.”

“Perfect.” I said, but it wasn’t. Because as much as I was in awe of this odd creature before me, I did not know what to do with her. And this ring was one of the most expensive items in my shop. And she was in joggers.

This did not bother my Main Character. She was already slipping the ring onto the middle finger of her right hand, and damn if it didn’t slip on there like it was made for her! I almost just said, take it and go with my blessings!

She reached into her little fanny pack. Had we reached a price while I wasn’t listening? Oh God my mouth had run while I was musing. Had I said the ‘with my blessings’ out loud? Damnation.

“This is obviously superb,” she purred, as she began counting 100s onto my counter, “So I’m actually going to give you both for being so kind as to show a new customer your back lot.”

“…both?”

She didn’t look up from her counting, “The money and the favor.”

“But I didn’t ask for a-“

“Well, when you do, you’ll have my card.”

“Oh, okay.”

She held out her hand with the ring on it, once to admire, and then once to shake mine. A firm grip, an affectionate squeeze paired with a short satisfied laugh, and she turned to go. I couldn’t believe our interaction was ending so soon. I wanted to chat, to know what was next! To be a part of it!

“Wait!”

She turned, one hand on the door, half of her already gone, “Yes?” Another look at those eyes, the brass flashing with… curiosity? Laughter?

“Do you… want a receipt?”

“No, thank you,” she smiled, “better not!” and she was gone.

I stared out my door for a moment, as if she might pop back through it, but she did not.

So I next I stared at the many papers piled on my counter, most of them green. Oh my. She… certainly compensated me my fair share for the ring. Underneath Benjamin Franklin’s many faces, was a thick square of white paper. It had only 5 numbers. So… not a phone number. How would I get in touch? I flipped it over to see-

A card. Her card. The Queen of Diamonds.

The Word

Auxiliary (adj): Providing supplementary or additional help and support. (noun): A person or thing providing supplementary or additional help and support.

I’ve rewritten this section a few times. I have lots of different thoughts about this! I know I blabber on sometimes, tell y’all exactly how I’m feeling when I write something. Sometimes I’m like HERE IS MY POINT and other times I try to be more tricksy. I think I’ll just leave this one here, and invite you to view Tina and her Main Character as they are, however you like. If you want, let me know how you’re feeling about their short interaction- you know where to find me!


And also… isn’t it nice to see the Queen again? 😉 I wonder what she’d think of someone referring to HER as the Main Character…

Happy reading!

Today I am Okay

The Story/Non-Poem*

*It’s my blog. I can call it what I want 😉

When someone traumatic tries to come back into your life, I envision it a lot like ‘two ships that pass in the night…’ two war ships, naturally.

The clouds move to cover

Wind whispers on sail cloth

The wood’s creaking a rumor

And cleansing in sea froth

Enemy ship on the horizon captain!

Is it… them, One-Eye?

Aye, Captain. Less than a league and gaining.

Damn.

There’s a hum in the deep

A disturbance is near

The old ruins rumble

Buried creatures reappear

There’s still time to out run them, Capt’n. We can make it to Storm Bay an’ camouflage in the cliffs.

We could, mate, we could.

What’s the call, Captain?

The temptation delicious

To unsheath the sword

Once dripped in battle

Surge forward once more

Run out the cannons! Raise the flag! Hard to starboard to face!

You heard the Captain, hard to starboard!

Cannons lads! CANNONS!

To growl out the thunder

Match lightening with flame

But sea, storm, and sailor

Have become one in the same

Cannons, ready, Captain. Engage?

No- no. I just want the enemy to see ’em. Let them fire the first shot.

They’re closing, Captain!

Hold, all! HOLD!

The dark demands upon the bow

It aches to move, hurts to still

The anchor, the sail, to stay, to run

It’s all a matter of will

They’re moving out of range, Captain, pickin’ up knots!

Aye, the cowards. Well done, lads! Pull the cannons. Leave the flag high for now.

Aye, Captain!

There is a shield built on balance

A weapon with peace

And a wind drives one onward

To tread storms with ease

Turn us back to course, and pour us all a rum.

The Word

Okay (Exclamation): Used to express assent, agreement, or acceptance. (Adj): Satisfactory but not exceptionally or especially good. (Adverb): In a satisfactory manner or to a satisfactory extent. (Noun): An authorization or approval. (Verb): Sanction or give approval to.

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence

— Henery Wadsworth Longfellow, The Theologian’s Tale

To answer your unspoken question I’ve completely imagined: No, I don’t think Mr. Longfellow would appreciate how I used the arguably most quoted line from his Theologian’s Tale to rewrite one of those ships’ crew preparing for a potential battle.** It kinda goes against the entire theme of the original work. But on the other hand, he was a romantic in his personal life, as well as a writer for the common man, so perhaps he would totally understand that when you’re awoken with a fright at 3am and find someone bucking up against your boundaries, you grasp onto whatever you can and if what comes out is a goofy not-poem scribbled in the Notes app, that’s okay.

Anyway. I didn’t write a lot in 2021 for lots of reasons, many of them I’ve detailed before- one of them is one that keeps all of us from doing things all the time: the demon Perfectionism. I’m scared to put work out there that isn’t good enough. That will make people say “what the hell does she think she’s doing? She literally needs to stick to her day job.” And that’s okay. And I love the not-poem above and it’s okay. And I think I’ll have lots of stories this year that are okay, but I also think I’ll bring some to you that are really awesome! Some I’ve already started that I’m very excited about! But to bring you those, I have to write everything and work on it and work on me and practice, so, here’s my pre-apology and pre-blush for the okay ones. I invite you all to join me in being okay, more than okay, and everything in between in 2022!

Happy reading, and happy New Year!

**(I wrote the rhyming parts later, I cannot rhyme at 3am.)

Today I am Telltale

Two raps at the door. I knew they’d come.

Raps? I chuckled, set my book down along with its far away plot I’d clearly been too wrapped in. I stood to answer what was really just a couple polite knocks.

“Mrs. Leaway? I’m Officer Merriman, this is Officer Bringle and Officer Townsen. It appears your doorbell is broken.”

On my sunny little deck were three policeman. The one who spoke was a bit taller than I, enough I had to look up into his brown eyes. He sported a lovely stereotypical mustache that made me smile at him, but also crows’ feet around his eyes. I hoped they were from smiling at maybe a first or second grandchild, and not squinting at suspects.

His companions appeared to have been chosen because they were exact opposites of each other. A cooked shrimp, in all senses- small, red, with a small spiny thin beard, versus a bison of a man- dark, tall, and bursting with muscles. I wondered for a moment if they were casting a buddy cop movie on my front porch.

“That’s me, sir. Sorry about the doorbell, I asked my husband to change the sound out for something less annoying- it had been this jangling thing since we moved in- and he didn’t. So I tried it myself and broke the whole dang thing. The electrician has to come in! I’m so embarrassed.”

Mustache and Bison chuckled, Shrimp was not amused.

“I’ve had similar DIY mishaps myself, ma’am,” Mustache nodded.

“Speaking of your husband-” Shrimp started, but Mustache put a hand out to quiet him and started again.

“Mrs. Leaway, we received a concerned tip from an anonymous source. We’d just like to clear that up with you.”

I nodded, making sure to send my smile to Shrimp as well, but he still frowned through his thin lips. “Of course, would you all like to come in? It’s muggy out today.”

“I know I would, thank you ma’am,” Bison stepped past his partners into the air-conditioning as I held the screen door for all three, noting their fully equipped belts as they shuffled by. I welcomed them into the den, where I’d just been reading my book and where my cats, Midnight and Cheesepuff, each opened an eye to inspect the new comers. Midnight decided it wasn’t worth investigation, but Cheesepuff hopped off his ottoman throne to sniff each boot.

“Handsome fella you have here,” Mustache noted, offering Cheesepuff his hand to sniff. I was leaning more towards the grandkids theory.

“Thank you! They’re both rescues, but act as if they’re bred straight from gold. You can take a seat, if you’d like.” I leaned up against the back of my sofa, pale pink bespeckeled with purple violets. It was an ugly thing, but it was a gift from Gerald’s mother and I had to admit it was comfortable.

“Thank you but no, we hopefully won’t be here long. Mrs. Leaway, the tip I mentioned.”

“Yes,” I tied my fingers together, “what was it about?”

“Apparently, yesterday afternoon, a witness saw you at the grocery store purchasing what they said were ‘troubling items’, and then you made a concerning statement to the cashier.”

“Oh…” I could feel the heat rise in my cheeks, how embarrassing for multiple someones to have witness my terrible attempt at comedy, “It was just a little joke… I was trying to be funny. I suppose I missed the mark,” I said quietly, staring at my feet, where Cheezepuff was now sitting, as if my tiny little queen’s guard.

“Well, we’d take it as such as well except that this same witness mentioned they normally see your husband each morning, walking your dog around the block, and then sometimes again in the evening, either walking the dog or strolling with you. The witness said they haven’t seen your husband do so in several days.”

I chanced a glance up at Mustache. He was giving me one of those Fatherly-Authortive stares. I was sure it worked on teenagers and young women everywhere. Shrimp was glancing around my den, leaning back to look down the hallway, making little marks into a spiral bound notebook. Bison and Midnight were having some sort of silent conversation.

“I’m sure you can see the implication the witness was making, Mrs. Leaway.”

“I can, Mr… Merriman, you said?” He nodded, “Mr. Merriman, as I said, my comment to the cashier was a joke, though clearly a bad one and at best inappropriate, and I’d be more than willing to apologize if I made the poor boy uncomfortable.”

“That’s not the problem here, ma’am-“

“As you can see though, sir, we don’t even have a dog. We’re cat people. There’s an elderly man next door, Mr. Charles Ridgeland, who we’re very close to- ever since we moved in he’s been just the most wonderful neighbor to us. So when his wife died three years ago this August, and he got a bit too tired to get his beagle Maggie out as much as she liked to go, of course we volunteered to take her! My husband kinda needs the fresh air in the morning anyway, and I loved joining him in the evening if we both got home on time.”

“I see,” Mustache was nodding at me, but I could see the calculations going on behind his eyes.

“And Mr. Ridgeland will be able to attest to all this?” Shrimp piped up with his notepad, like an eager reporter. I half expected him to switch hats to a 50’s fedora.

“Mmhmm, he will. But please don’t take it personally if he’s a bit stiff at first. Charles is a veteran, and was a lawyer until Betsy- his wife- begged him to retire, so he can come off a little strong. Please be kind.”

“Of course,” Shrimp responded automatically, and took out the door, seemingly pleased to have his own task. I wished it was Bison going to speak to Charles, as I was mildly afraid my strong-tempered neighbor would have just enough vigor to get a taste for seafood if that spindly little officer upset him so late in the afternoon.

I took a deep sigh, suddenly very tired myself, and leaned further back into the sofa.

“Are you alright, Mrs. Leaway?” Officer Bison asked, glancing at his partner.

“I am,” I nodded, “it’s just been a long couple of days. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to sit? I’ve got a big table in the kitchen if you’d prefer that over the den.”

Mustache nodded, and I couldn’t tell if it was to me or Bison, but either way they followed me through the little hallway.

“My goodness, someone has been busy,” Officer Bringle/Bison’s deep voice rumbled through my little kitchen, it’s granite counters stacked high with pastries in every single tupperware I owned, and then those stacked with muffins and scones just wrapped in sullophane.

“Yes… I… I bake when I’m upset, you see.”

I had my back to them as I poured us each a glass of water, but I felt another look exchanged.

“I’m pretty good too, I’ve won the state fair’s pound cake with my buttered rum the past two years. Would you all like a slice?”

“You’re THAT Mrs. Leaway? My goodness, I thought the name looked familiar. Alright, if Officer Bringle here can keep a secret, I’ll take you up on that slice. I’ve heard it’s heavenly.”

I smiled over my shoulder at them, and happily uncovered the cake stand, slicing four thick pieces.

We each took a seat at the kitchen table, another gift from Gerald’s mother, but this one had been during a time before her cataracts so it was a beautiful slat of mahogany, the legs and chairs of which had carvings that reminded me of a nymph’s braided hair in those old mythology books.

Mustache took a large forkful of his cake, “The rumors are all true, Mrs. Leaway. Don’t tell my wife, but this is the best damn cake I’ve ever had in my life.”

Officer Bison nodded vigorously and mumbled something agreeing through a crumb-filled mouth.

“But if you don’t mind an old man asking,” Mustache swallowed, took another bite along with his gentlemanly tactic, swallowed again, “why have you been se upset lately that I can’t even guess the color of your countertops?”

I took a small sip from my water glass, then a sigh, “Well, what your little witness apparently doesn’t know is that Gerald- my husband, left me for another woman last week.”

“He left this??” Bison pointed at the cake with his fork.

“Bingle!”

I laughed, a real, full throated laugh.

“Ma’am, I am so sorry-” Mustache started.

“No,” I steadied myself, “no, oh my goodness I needed that, thank you.”

Mustache glared at Bison, Bison stared straight into his water glass.

They stayed silent, waiting for me to continue. I obliged.

“I’m an analyst for city planners-” I began, “I work from home most days, just researching and making calls. It’s why I started baking, honestly, what to do with your hands when you’re on your headset for three hours bickering with an Architect and his Engineer cronies? Honestly it helped negotiations to occasionally blur them out with the blender-” Mustache laughed here but pretended it was a loose crumb.

“-But some days I have to actually go out and meet with City Council, or the Bankers, whoever is investing in the town. Last Wednesday morning I told Gerald I had to do just that, way over in Blueville County, so I wouldn’t be back until late in the evening. Well, I got home that evening, expecting him to be just coming in from walking Maggie. Instead, he had just finished packing his last suitcase. The forest green one with his monogram that I gave him for Christmas! We were supposed use to our new luggage to visit Scotland this Spring. But he was using it to run off.”

Officer Bison swallowed his last bite of cake, “And did you confront him?”

I wanted to put my head in my hands, but didn’t want to look like I was hiding my face, so I tried to look at them even though I felt my eyes watering again, “Sort of. I didn’t know what to do! My family is not the type that has their husbands run off, you know? So I just stood there asking him ‘why’ over and over again, and he just kept saying that she was more fun, more interesting, more wild.”

And I had. I felt no reason to tell them the detail that my “why?”s had gotten louder and louder with each repetition. Is an omission of detail a lie?

“I will admit to you, gentlemen, that I was standing in the doorway, and when he tried to move past me, we had a little scuffle,” I rolled up my sleeve to show the olive-colored finger prints with yellowing petals still blooming across my arms, “It’s my own fault. All those warnings about heated arguments and such. You always hear ‘don’t start something when you can’t think straight, talk once everyone’s calm, blah blah blah.’ And what did I do? Literally stood in the way.”

“May I?” Mustache stood to closer examine my arm, and I nodded. His touch was kind, and his fingers slightly warm. “Could you further detail as-stated ‘scuffle’, Mrs. Leaway?”

“This was really the extent of it. I can’t even remember if he grabbed me first to move me, or if I grabbed him to make him stay. But it was like we stood there for a moment, still as statues. Then he pulled me the rest of the way out of the doorframe and kept going.” The officer gently pulled my sleeve back down my shoulder and moved back to his seat.

“Why didn’t you report him for that big a bruise?” Bison questioned, “I don’t mean to sound accusatory, but I will say we have had calls for less.”

I nodded, “And I understand those calls. But like I said, these kind of things just don’t happen to us. So it took several days for me to realize that it did happen to me, and by then, I wasn’t really sure if there was anything to do.”

“You can’t blame yourself for that, ma’am, we never know how we might act in those moments.” Mustache said reassuringly, and looking into his calm eyes, I thought how nice it probably was to have such a man around the house.

“Did he leave the house then, or did you continue to engage with one another?” Bison asked quietly.

Engage. I shook off the shudder that was rising up my spine. It’s strange; a moment so passionate and extraordinary can become so clinical and ordinary in just a word.

I took another sip of water to clear my throat, “Well he got by me, and walked through here, back out towards the garage,” I gestured his path through the kitchen, “and I followed him the whole way, just begging him to tell me what was going on.”

Or at least that’s what Gerald should have interpreted from my continued “Why!”s.

“And gentlemen, I’m embarrassed to say this,” they leaned in slightly, “but as I followed him through the kitchen, I picked up several of the banana walnut muffins I’d meant to take to our Home Owner’s Association meeting and launched them at him as hard as I could. He screamed at me- told me it was assault. Is it?”

Bison sucked his teeth, and I think it was to keep himself from laughing a bit.

Mustache shook his head, appearing to hold his breath, “No ma’am, I don’t believe it it would hold in a court of law.”

“I don’t even remember if I even hit him with one. He was out the door and in his car so fast, with me just begging for answers behind him…”

…I decided to also leave out the part where he’d peeled out of the driveway with my nail marks on his doorhandle. There was no need for that.

During my recounting, Shrimp had made his way back into the house and to the table. He’d stared at the cake in front of him and I only now realized I hadn’t provided a fork. I stood to get him one.

“Mrs. Leaway, were there any witnesses to him leaving the home?”

I returned to the table with the fork, but before I could answer, Shrimp coughed for attention, a new blush on him that hadn’t been there when he left.

“If you’re referring to Mr. Leaway’s departure, I got that confirmation from the neighbor Mr. Charles Ridgeland.”

Mustache turned to Shrimp, “Last Wednesday evening?”

“Last Wednesday evening confirmed. He says he was at the window, expecting Mr. Leaway to come retrieve Maggie the beagle as was their routine, but Mr. Leaway did not. When Mr. Leaway was quite late, Mr. Ridgeway stepped outside on his stoop and heard shouting, and then saw Mr. Leaway pull out of the driveway in his green Dodge. Mr. Ridgeway then went back inside his house to retrieve his walker, and then came over to the Leaway residence to see if all was well.”

“Thank you, Mr. Townsen,” I offered as much a smile I could.

“This is a correct retelling of the next few moments, Mrs. Leaway?” Mustache asked.

“Yes, it is. As I said, Charles is a wonderful neighbor. I suppose more a friend at this point. I wish I’d seen him coming over, I would have met him halfway but I was in such a state. I brought him in the house and he just sat there so sweetly holding my hand while I practically went into shock! Then he waited while I called my friend Leslie Bagsend to come over and stay with me for the night. She’s actually come and stayed with me a couple nights- I think she and Charles are in cahoots to keep me sane,” I giggled a bit to make it clear I was joking and my sanity was not actually a concern.

Mustache looked to Shrimp, Shrimp took another bite of cake, looked at his notepad, and nodded.

“And Ms. Bagsend can corroborate these details as well?”

I nodded, able to give a small smile on behalf of my friend, “Oh yes, the rest of the evening was a blur for me but she was so sweet to come over. She wanted to take me back to her house but I didn’t want to leave incase Gerald came home.”

“Leslie is my wife’s sister-in-law,” Bison offered nodding along with me, “a real reliable person. I’ll follow up but I suspect that’s why Leslie missed their little book club my wife was hosting couple nights ago.”

“Well, Mrs. Leaway,” Mustache stood, and the other two scrambled to do so as well, “it appears that instead of suspicious nature, we have instead a domestic disturbance here, and I do apologize for any further pain we’ve caused by making you recount the events. As you may know, we’ve had a few nasty occurrences in the county over the past couple years so we take every tip very seriously.”

Bison held up a hand to his partner, then turned to me, “I would like to ask, ma’am… about the grocery items?”

“Oh,” I stood again, retrieving my purse from the hook on the door, unfolding the receipt from my wallet, and placing it on the table in front of them.

“You see, like I said, my family isn’t the type to have their husbands run off. I was ashamed, and I supposed still in a bit of shock all those days later. So I bought the rope and the cookies, and made my terrible joke to the cashier. When I got home, I took one bite of those damn cookies-

I slapped the counter “-it was like a splash of cold water!”

They all jumped back a bit. I swear Shrimp even reached to his belt.

“Store bought cookies? In my house?! No man was going to do that to me. So I burned that rope. I wasn’t going to go out like that. Not while there was still air in my lungs. There might still be pieces of it out on the grill if you’d like to check.”

Mustache finally took a breath and straightened a stray whisker, “So you mean, the rope was going to be for you?”

“Yes sir, I was quite out of my mind. I didn’t think I could live as an abandoned wife with all the shame. But I’ll make it through. Charles says he still has contacts, will get me a good divorce lawyer. He says since Gerald ran, I can probably keep the house. I designed this kitchen myself a few years ago when I got really into my baking, and all the notes to the contractor are in my handwriting. And Leslie keeps insisting that the minute I give her the signal she’s knows five men with the hots for divorcee’s. Plus, over my dead body will Leann Goodwin’s keylime pie win at the State Fair. So.”

I’d tried to make a little joke. They didn’t laugh, but I saw a twinkle in Mustache’s eye, and Bison smiled at me.

“Quite the turn in just a few days.” Shrimp noted.

“Well, better than hanging from the ceiling,” I said, staring straight into his pale blue eyes until he looked away, “and would I love for him to come crawling back through that door on his hands and knees right this minute? Yes. But will he? I do not believe so. Gerald’s never done an impulsive thing in his life, so I don’t think this was either. He’d been planning to leave for a while, I was just the last to know.”

In fact, it would be quite impressive if he crawled through the door right now.

The officers tipped their hats, shook my hand, took their leave.

I waited several minutes after the last reflection off their silver studded cars were gone before I made my way over to Charles’s porch, where he waited, Maggie at his feet and three glasses of sweet tea on the table.

“A site for sore eyes, my gal! Leslie called, she’s at Rhonda’s to apologize for missing book club and spread a little gossip, then is on her way here.”

I scratched Maggie behind the ears and under her collar, she gave an approving “hrumphet” before flopping on her side.

“That’s excellent. Thank you, Charles, I hope Shrimpy wasn’t too annoying.”

“Ha!” Came Charles’s raspy voice, “You calling Shrimpy? I was thinking the simple Pinky. Or Pipsqueak.”

I laughed with him for a bit, leaning back in one of his iron chairs.

“Where is he?” I asked, more out of curiosity than care.

“You know you don’t get to know that, doll. You never get to know your own. Family rule.”

Leslie’s pearly white Cadillac was coming down the drive, just as the sun was starting to sink.

The Word

Telltale (adj): Revealing, indicating, or betraying something. (noun): 1. A person, especially a child, who reports others’ wrongdoings or reveals their secrets. 2. A device or object that automatically gives a visual indication of the state or presence of something.

Well, at least he’s not under the floorboards, right?

I should probably stop writing shorts about people taking care of their problems in such a way. But like, then what would I scare off potential suitors with? I only have the one cat.

Today I am Spite

The Story

Alright- it’s true. I took some time off.

Okay, more than some, come on, it was rough.

I could say we all needed it, but you’d call that bluff.

Or I hope you would, ’cause y’all know me well enough.

.

And in that bit of time, some mice thought they’d sneak

Into my trove of treasures, took a little peak.

And yes, though I welcome all who travel and seek,

I did the sowing, and now they did the reap!

.

So while I was engrossed in my morose cliche,

We passed each other on my self paved pathway.

And just like mice do when the cat goes astray,

They think that they’ve won, “Oh she’s gone, hooray!”

.

But no, my sweet dears, there’s no kitten here,

No gone-dry milk dish,

No whisker wept tears,

There’s something else that might awaken their fears.

.

For if mightier yet than the sword is the pen,

Than imagine lays waiting,

In a quill laden den,

And it’s rustling and rising and waking again.

.

The feather’s been dipped in what cools on the floor.

The ritual’s starting: They rage! They adore!

And whether to art, heart, or vengeance allegiance you swore,

There’s more to you coming- than ever before.

The Word

Spite (noun): a desire to hurt, annoy, or offend someone. (adj): deliberately hurt, annoy, or offend (someone).

I’m not a fan of the above definition of spite. It was the general thought from official sources though when I looked around. I think it’s one of those words that has gotten a little bit a ~vibe~ added to it through social usage. Because it was always my understanding that for it to truly be spite, it had to also bring a little bit of pain or unnecessary toil to the spite-er. Am I wrong? Do y’all also get that vibe?

Anyway, a beloved reader recently brought it to my attention that someone out there is suspiciously “Today I am”-ing on their blog in a very iiiiiinteresingly way. Now, I am in no way arrogant enough to think I was the first person to come up with the phrase “Today I am”, as there are many people who are, and will be many people who will. I mean, my God, think of all the people who have haved!

Let me tell ya though, there are few things that will kick a competitive writer out of their funk and into their ink-stained seat like someone coming on their turf! And who are writers/artists if not dramatic*? Would you even like us if we weren’t??

So I am back again, baby.

Because I like my turf, and I love my readers! And I like where a lot of these stories are going- so I hope you’ll stick around and find out with me. We’ve got a lot of new shorts coming, as well as updates on Liza, the Queen of Diamonds, and the whole gang!

*My favorite example of this to pull out at a party is that Mark Twain literally died at the right time just for the drama of it. The absolute king.

Today I am Imprinted

The Story

Time for a true story.

Isn’t it?

There’s been so much. Too much, lots of muchness, and yet not enough. Less muchness than we’ve ever felt and yet not enough to be enough than we’ve ever had in quite some time.

So I want to share with you a true story.

My Poppa was a hunter. I called him Poppa because I was told that was his name. I think my oldest brother chose it because he was born first and therefore the first grandchild and the first grandchild that can pronounce sounds often gets to announce names but Poppa was an assertive man so I imagine there was some compromise.

Poppa hunted ducks. He once hunted deer as well but he didn’t like that as much, that felt much too much like hunting for sport rather than meat, because his father-in-law gave him a full cow for the freezer every Fall so there was no need for deer. But his bride, as he called her to his dying day, could braise a duck with the best of them, so that was hunting like the Lord intended.

The Lord had made some laws, but the government stepped in when it came to the hunting of ducks, and Poppa did his best to adhere to both sets. He rose early in the day, read his Bible, said a prayer at both the breakfast and dinner table, and he bought the Duck Stamp from the US Federal Fish & Wildlife Service every year, as was required of him and every other duck hunter since 1934.

And then he got old, poor man. It’s a shame when a man gets old, it is even worse when he notices.

I was lucky, my Poppa got old long before he noticed. Every memory of him is filled with snowy hair and callused fingers, but very few of them showed those same years mirrored in his eyes. But he did gain the wisdom and class that comes with the experience of man who has seen his share of scenes, as well as a man who has loved an elegant woman for several decades as my Poppa was fortuitous to do. Though his knees and elbows and eyeglass prescription eventually informed him that his era of hunting was over, the staircase to his study would tell a different story.

There on the wall hung the enlarged prints of several official Federal Fish & Wildlife Service stamps. They were matted and framed professionally, the mats marsh green or dusk blue to match the stamps’ vision. And in the corner of each frame is a true Duck Stamp.

I proceed to grow up in this house. I stumble up and down this staircase from dollhouse to video game, from illiterate to bookworm. I fight with my brothers on this staircase, am called to supper on this staircase, am scolded on this staircase. These ducks witness my every growth-spirt, terrible fashion phase, and heart break. They peek over the scaffolding at my family, scattered at tables plying pecans from their shells and playing cards on the floor, napping on a leather couch. They see me plummet down the stairs too many times as I realize I have not set a timer on the chex mix in the oven. They hear Nanna, Poppa’s bride, call for us to set the table. They hear my mother remind us, that Nanna asked us five minutes ago to set the table. They hear, just around the corner from them, the bubbling over of a full table of food and laughter, and too many talkative people who enjoy and irritate each other too much to hear each other at once.

And they hear Poppa call for quiet before anyone eats*, because the Lord and the Federal Fish & Wildlife Service both have laws that must be obeyed. And they are both present at this dinner table. The Lord in the prayer, and the Fish & Wildlife Service, just around the corner, in many paintings, on the staircase.

Unfortunately, this is a true story. And in as all true stories, time passes. For Poppa, instead of cicada songs and duck-whistle calls, there is next the whine of his hearing aid, and then suddenly, and yet not suddenly enough at all, silence.

And we must do what must be done.

I won’t go into the details of the passing on of the house this time around, as I believe enough of us have those stories. I will tell you, that when it came down to heirloom-ing of those Duck Stamps, I in my soul felt it was an encore of Much Ado About Nothing**. So, I offered that my vote of which Stamp painting would come to me, could go to my eldest brother, and Poppa’s namesake, and HIS bride. They happily accepted their second painting. No regrets.

And then a couple years passed.

Do not fret- to this very day, I have no regrets about my offering.

However, on a social media site I shall not name, I happened upon an artist. This artist was painting two geese over a marsh. A marsh like the one my family had taken me fish-frying at. I knew that hot green. I’d seen painters try to replicate this before, and failed horrendously. This artist though, must have actually traversed dew-laden lands and humid mornings with cranky frogs and territorial fog. How interesting, I thought. What lovely composition. It was not going to be hung in the Louvre, but what grace they had given the flight feathers. How caring they’d been to the cordgrasses. They described the brush they were using, how they began with that green background, not to set color but to give themselves mood.

Lovely. I thought, trying to contain myself. How nice.

You see, over the past couple years after graduating college with two art-flavored degrees and then going into non-art flavored work, I’d made it my mission to support passionate people when I could. A tithe in a way, like my Poppa before me. We were both following the Lord’s law, in our own ways.

As I listened to the voiceover in the video, I discovered this artist was painting these geese for a particular reason.

The Federal Fish & Wildlife 2021 Duck Stamp competition, to be exact.

I sucked my teeth. I giggled. I snorted. I sobbed into the pillow from the sofa of Poppa’s house.

And then I bought a black and white print of those geese. It’ll go towards the artist’s submission fee. They are one of the youngest contestants this year, and I’m rooting for them.

It’s time. Soon I’ll be buying a home, with a staircase. And I don’t know if there will be Duck Stamps there. But there will be lots of art, and among them will be one artist’s rendition of geese flying over a marsh, as the brushstrokes taught me more than I ever thought I’d want to know.

I don’t think Poppa minds. I think Poppa enjoys that I remember his Duck Stamps hanging there. That I can see him sitting in his chair, and Nanna in hers, late at night in the summer when it was my turn to spend the week with them. He would be reading some scholar’s book on Mark’s gospel, and Nanna would be part in a murder mystery novel, part in a needle point, and part watching Jeopardy. But as I would come up the stairs past those paintings, they’d look at me like I was the world.

So I giggle to myself, ordering a little print of a small artist, trying to make a way among the Duck Stamp hall-of-famers. In the great Somewhere, Poppa is still telling everyone I’m his favorite granddaughter while winking. You see, he thinks it’s funny because I’m his only granddaughter.

The Word

Imprint (verb/noun) 1. impress or stamp (a mark or outline) on a surface or body. 2. ZOOLOGY(of a young animal) come to recognize (another animal, person, or thing) as a parent or other object of habitual trust.

Isn’t truth a fantastic word?

Because I have told you the truth. My truth. A truth.

For starters, this is what I know, what I remember. That doesn’t mean it’s correct. I could be getting a call from a familiar member as you read this saying “No no- his hearing dwindled before his sight.” And in reality, it was the staircase to the playroom that held the paintings, not his study staircase. But there was less than two feet between those two staircases, yet they did have different carpeting, so you could call me on that one if you wanted.

But I don’t mind. And I suspect, neither does he.

And if you want to know more about the US Fish and Wildlife Service Duck Stamp click here.

*I and my middle brother may or may not have half a buttered biscuit in our mouths when this prayer occurs at any given dinner. The eldest brother has never been caught, and neither has his wife.

**I’m leaving this up to your interpretation. You’re correct. All of your feelings are right. How do you feel about that play? Yes, you’re right. No no- stop explaining it, no one actually cares, you’re just right. You’re correct. Stop. Sto- Yes I believe yo- I SAID YES. PLEASE. SHUT UP. STOP IT. STOP.

Today I am Abscond

The Story

Beep beep -Really, you’re one of those bitches that just leaves a dude hanging?-

The guy I’d stood up has been texting me these kinda lines for a couple of days. Honestly, they’ve erased any guilt I had for my rude move. Yeah, it was terrible of me to leave him at a restaurant with no explanation for my absence, but wasn’t texting me nasty names and harassing my inbox for days on end a little much?

Beep beep -Your little Speedster has figured out your plan for Tower Bridge. Need new instructions ASAP-

Okay well THAT text is a way bigger problem.

I was loving my new arrangement with LeAnne and her friends, or as I liked to refer to them, the Eights of Diamonds. Because there… were… eight of them. At least in the little squad that was helping me out. I didn’t inquire too much into the rest of their connections or organization or however they knew each other… them wanting to help me and be my kickass henchwomen for the time being in exchange for a percentage of our occasional spoils and my uncle’s scone recipe was good enough for me. I have a full time job, a full time cover life, and a mother that expects me to make it to Taco Tuesdays with her and my uncle, I don’t have time to lay charges 2am myself!

I sent a memo to my boss on my laptop that yes, the Peterson contract was written up and ready for the customer, then switched to my alter phone to be the boss for a minute:

To the dude: -hey, fuck off. Clearly this didn’t work out. Sorry and shut up.-

To Rory, one of my favorite in the Eights: -Alright, still got the equipment? Let’s keep the plan but move to Trafalgar Square. It won’t be as pretty, but has the same kinda pedestrian traffic. I’ll send you a new layout in a minute. Also, tell Frida I need her to make a house call, I’ll forward the lad’s number.-

It was becoming so routine: Wake up, workout, sign in to my real work, while simultaneously answering a few texts from the Eight, and a few fellow villainous gossipers, on a burner phone. Change from slacks into what I’d started to call my “regalia”, but what was really my constantly under-construction catsuit, and hit the town.

Literally. Hit the town. Last week we hit up a small government treasury building (where it turned out they were hiding some jewels! So pretty!) and although I really had planned on Conley stopping us, he only managed to wrangle about half of our plunder back from us before our escape. The week before that we destroyed a train station, and he did make sure there were no casualties, so that was his win. I thought that one was a classic that would make him look great- saving innocents from a runway train is so Wild West! Even if this time it was subway. The destroyed tracks did put the schedule off since though so… whoops.

And it only took like a couple glasses of wine and one or two muffins every single day to stuff down the concerns and small mental fractures that tried to reemerge. Which was fine, because the workouts I was having to do to keep fit enough to survive my encounters with Conley, not to mention the encounters themselves, burned off so much, I was basically a garbage disposal when it came to food. Beach bod? More like criminal’s abdominals.

So it was getting easier to clock out at work and clock into work. It was not getting easier to get across town in business hour traffic, so I needed to talk to the Eights what they thought about me getting a bigger place and making my home and my workspace the same spot somehow. Like Batman. Wow, it was just really nice to have someone to talk to about this kind of stuff.

Oof, that was a guilt punch in the stomach. I still needed to call Jacob back.

His voicemail from a few days ago had been so sweet, even if it was a bit… condescending? But he wouldn’t even know why it was.

“Hey hun, just calling to check in, you ran off rather pale an’ I want to make sure you’re alright. We got the kid back on his feet. Then off his feet witha couple pints to get him over the videos he was sore over. Though between you and me, I thought some’the dances quite catchy, hehha. Kill ya if you tell ‘im! I know it was a bit much for ya, but you did great. If I don’t hear from ya soon I’mma hunt ya down and take ya out for the night- we’re all too spun up these days. So just gimme a ring and let me know you’re alright, alright? Alright.”

Alright, Jacob. I couldn’t hear his voice right now. It would be filled with that countryside warmth that felt like soup in my soul and I need steel in my bones this evening. He’d want a genuine answer when he asked how I was. And, well, I’d already turned on my “Badass Bitch” playlist, so that would just throw me off. Instead, at a red light I sent him a text.

Hey J- Sorry I’ve been MIA. (Man I was apologizing a lot. Gotta stop that.) Been looking after my uncle after the fire w/ mom plus work stuff = been busy. Would love to get drinks soon with evbody. 2night maybe? 

Two birds with one stone: answered a friend and made an alibi. If she was making plans for tonight, surely she couldn’t be the woman standing on Nelson’s Tower, a high beam of granite, threatening a hero across the square, right?

But she was. And here he comes, decked out in his new boots, too, isn’t that nice? I knew they were new because it was I that pointed out he needed a whole new concept after Mattis complained Conley’s run through just the inside of another set of kicks. When his order came in, we’d painted them a metallic steal, so when he ran it looked like steam coming off the asphalt. Even from across the square, I was proud of our work.

In the midst of the dusk, he looked radiant against the sunset. I’d given a small leak to a Twitter conspirator, and that’s all it took to bring the cameras running- I hoped the press was catching him against the rusting glow.

Still, I struck at him with my needled spear-gun.

“Let’s see you hustle, steam-boy!” I called out, “You’re fast, but are you clever?!” I teased, pulling the strings on several charges left throughout the square. As they went off, a little relief went through me, the Eight had setup just as instructed, and these explosions were beautiful. 

He did so well! Dashing across the space to save both patron and press. I had to remind myself to be proud later, there was still work to be done.

“You’re no queen!” He chocked through the smoke as he sped a civilian to safety, “You’re just a fool!”

Okay, ‘You’re just a jester’ would have been a much better line, but Conley had never really paid attention during our English classes. Note to self: casually encourage a book club.

He bolted like lightening across the space, bounced atop the Art Gallery’s dome- lunging for me.

If I’d been another villain, perhaps I’d been caught in this frozen moment. But I’d helped him train. I knew his timing. I knew to dodge before I saw him.

So I let go of the small wire that had been holding me aloft.

I saw his eyes widen. In fear for me? In fury that I’d slipped away? These are the problems with adoring your enemy. You kinda want them to like you.

In the dark, Vivi bungeed from a nearby art fixture, grabbing me mid-air and like a city-struck Tarzan, swooped me into the shade of one of the buildings.

“‘Steam-boy’. I liked that, Diamond. Classic emasculation.”

“Thank you, Vivi,” I took a deep breath, pretending that a fall from 169 feet was totally cool and no big deal, “And he went with ‘fool’ he’s gotta step up his game.”

But speaking of fools…

WAM.

Oh my god. So much light. Too much light.

Somewhere, a bell was ringing.

No. No, I was ringing?

My ears, my ears were ringing.

“DIAMOND!”

“Vivi?”

“Dimond, get DOWN!”

WAM.

Blackness. Then Vivi’s hazel eyes.

“We have to get out of here.”

“What’s..?”

“Another hero-“

Another? No, that wasn’t.. oh the darkness was coming back.

“Vivi, my suit collar, there’s a… a purple button… hit… hit”‘

“Hit the purple button?”

Oh black and blue swirlies were so very inviting and so warm…

“Do…”

“Do it?”

“Vivi… purple…”

So tired.

“Diamond, please I swear to god don’t die, Almighty Bastet please bless her, here we go-“

The naloxone released quickly from the tube inside my collar. 

As I breathed the gas in deeply, I prayed to whoever was listening, that this would work.

The deep blackness was covering over me.

And then, stars.

Oh- oh wait. Those were actual stars. My eyes were open! AW SHIT MY EYES WERE OPEN.

“Vivi!”

“Oh my gods, you’re alive.”

I sat up, too quickly. Stars again, but I spit them out. “Vivi, who the fuck hit me?!”

“There’s a lout up there top strutting in front of the cameras,” she gestured towards the open hole above us. We were in a green-brown darkness, and it stunk. I realized Vivi had pulled us into the sewers beneath the square.

“He’s not trying to capture me?”

“Nah, he came out of nowhere and popped you out of my grasp. Then just as you were getting your footing he popped you again into the shadows of that damn rooster statue thing. I took the chance to pull you down here. He’s still up there crowing in front of the press.”

“Sir Steam?” I was still trying to wrap my slowly-swelling head around it.

“Nooo, no some other fella, in all blue. Too shiny if you ask me. All pomp.”

I started to stand out of the muck, “Can’t have that, let’s go.”

She grabbed my arm, “Diamond! Your face is already changing colors! I can’t rightly let you go out like that.”

I patted her hand, “I’ve got a couple more minutes of this drug in my veins. Just call LeAnne, tell her to give me three minutes, then get me out, okay?”

She gave me a very motherly look for a second, shook her face free of it, and then nodded, “Three minutes, then its all troops on deck.”

“It’s a deal.”

I pulled myself slowly out of the drain, still crouching in the shadows of first evening. Sure enough, as Vivi said, there was a broad figure in some royal blue spandex parading himself in front of a semicircle of press. Royal blue. So overused these days. I was mad already.

“This so-called Queen of Diamonds needs to know there’s no crown for her here!” The reporters laughed obnoxiously at the hero’s stupid joke, “My buddy Sir Steam was doing a great job putting out her smaller tantrums, but now that she seems to want to play with the big boys, I’m here to help out.” He put an arm around Conley’s neck and pulled him close.

Sidekick status.

Mmmm nope. That wouldn’t do at all.

The hairs on my neck and arms stood up, as if the night was much cooler than it had been a minute ago. I had never even danced with Mary Jane, and here I was now putting my life in the hands of EMT level drug, so that was fun. My shock-induced self wanted to examine the science of it. But the villain in me reeeeeally needed to put this douche in his place.

Oh good, I still had my poison-dart gun. I pulled it from my thigh strap. Aimed it, cursed my arm for shaking, aimed it again.

“I think the thing these young heroes are missing is- OW!”

BULLSEYE BITCH.

The Royal Blue Douche turned in my direction, forcing Conley, who was still under his arm to do the same. Aw shit, was that the slow acting poison? 

The press was not pleased: “AHHH SHE’S STILL HERE!” Cue the running and hiding.

Okay, I was not that scary. In fact, I worked very hard to make my ensemble aesthetically pleasing. So, ya know, rude. 

I focused on the approaching hero. Ah okay, so he was much closer than I thought. Maybe planning while still in shock wasn’t a great idea.

Stand up or gadget to higher spot? Stand up or gadget to higher spot?! My eyes un-blurred for a second and I got a good look at how big Royal Blue Douche was. Oh yeah, going up. I rock climbed back up the National Gallery wall while calling in LeAnne.

“Hey I need an exit.”

Her reply came in quick: “No exit plans for druggies.”

I rolled my eyes, “Oh shut up, I’m not going in like Uncle Julian used to. I needed to LIVE, LeAnne.”

Only static came back in my earpiece.

“LEANNE. You gonna hang me out to dry because I wanted to survive?!”

“I promised your uncle no drugs.”

I stopped halfway up the dome, even knowing that there was definitely a genetically enhanced superhuman on my tail, maybe two. “I’m sorry, you told Uncle Julian how much about what?”

“No, no I didn’t tell him anything, just that I was looking after you, and that there were no drugs.”

“LEANNE I’MMA SWAT YOU. I’M ON THE TOP OF A FUCKING BUILDING YOU GET ME AN EXIT PLAN RIGHT THE HELL NOW AND WE WILL DISCUSS THIS AT A LATER DATE.”

“FINE. I’m reading it out now- He just goes by The Executive.”

“Gross.” I kept climbing. There were defiantly large rocks being thrown at my head. Did he mind not ruining the building? Heroes were weird.

“Mostly strength, some earth-compatible components.”

“I NOTICED!” I said as I dodged another onslaught of asphalt hail, “An exit strategy, LeAnne, an EXIT!”

“Well why did you even re-enter?!”

“Because he was mocking Conley!”

“Who the hell is Conley!?”

Oh, that’s right. The one secret I hadn’t, couldn’t share with the Eight.

“A, um, a reporter, that I leak my stuff to.”

“Girl, you gotta get your emotions under control. Listen, I’ve got something cooking now- keep heading that direction. Dianna has a mirrored flyaway net, you’re gonna jump towards it, it’s gonna look like you just disappear, then y’all will shed your outfits, and back here on backroads.”

“Fine, fine,” I launched another needled arrow at the Royal Blue Dou- The Executive, hitting him square in the chest. He barely flinched. Sir Steam came up on his left and I shot one at him too, on his right calf, and it took him down. 

“DIAMOND THREE,” I heard Dianna call. That was my warning. I moved quickly in that direction, with The Executive growling obscenities closely behind me.

“DIAMOND TWO,” Get to the spot, get to the spot, The Executive’s speed didn’t matter much, because he was so strong he could launch himself off the roof and was gaining yards on me pretty quickly.

“DIAMOND ONE- GO!” Dianna called, and with every last bit of shivering energy left in my body, I threw myself off the building with the faith that her net would catch me, turning to shoot off one last flame into the night sky. 

Because diamonds shine.

 

Dee-dadalada-bada-la-dadeee

“I can’t answer it.”

Dee-dadalada-bada-la-dadeee

LeAnne leaned against Uncle Julian’s counter giving me a low-lidded look, “So another voicemail will be easier to handle?”

Dee-dadalada-bada-la-dadeee

I glared at her, and she winked at me, deliberately pouring more Pinot Noir into my glass while Vivi sewed my left temple back together.

Dee-dadalada-bada-la-dadeee

“You’ve got one more ring, my sweet,” she purred.

“I can see,” I carefully sipped from the glass, “why Uncle Julien loved you so.”

I started to lift the the phone to my ear, but even that hurt my shoulder and I hissed.

“We’re just gonna ask anyway, might as well,” Rory reached over to the phone for the speaker button.

“Rory, no-“

Dee-dadalada-

“…hello?”

“Jesus. I texted you back. And then aga’n, and aga’n! Got me worried after what went down at the sqaure- did you see?!”

“Yes, yes I saw.”

“Conley’s been off his rockers. He’s asking for ya. And I need ya, doll. I can’na handle him with out you. This new hero has him in knots. The Executive Asshole. And you had me in knots. I thought maybe the Queen had killed you with her damn fireworks. I’m sorry if I was too much the other nigh’, if I was- “

“No, Jacob, you were fine. I just needed air, it was,” I looked up at LeAnne, expecting her to just nod, but instead she raised her brows at me, “Look, can we get that drink sometime soon? I do need it like you said.”

“Yeah! I’m heading over to Mattis’s now with some bottles. Conley is getting debriefed with some fancy ass heroes ‘parently an’ then is headed there too. Meet me there?”

The ladies around me all rolled their eyes, “Men.” LeAnne mouthed.

“Well, I guess- OW!”

Vivi tugged her thread a little unnecessarily tight to remind me I was in no shape to see anyone tonight…

“Hey you alright there?”

“Yeah,” I gritted out, “I um, it’s not a great time tonight, J. I uh-“

In unison all the women began pointing at their uterus. Blessedly Vivi did not follow suit, or I may have lost an eyebrow. I quickly made the cut it out motion across my throat. I would NOT use such a cliche’ lie with such a good friend.

“-I’ve got a text from Uncle Julien. He and mom are starting to fuss being cooped up with each other. I’ll check in on them and then head over, alright?”

I received some approving head nods from the Eight and a “Sounds like a plan, hun.” from Jacob.

“That’s one gentleman taken care of,” I said to our small crowd, “now what are we going to do about this new guy? Where they hell did he come from?

“Looks like he’s one of the bigger guns,” Gertrude called from the couch where she’d been typing away on her laptop, “He’s got a bit of a history.” She turned the laptop towards us so we could see the multiple articles blasting titles the likes of: ‘The Executive Does It Again!’ ‘The Executive takes Down the Howling Hoods!!’ ‘City Makes The Executive Honory Major!’

“Well shit,” I spat, hoping they couldn’t hear the small vein of fear in my voice. Seeing the face that had gotten so close to obliterating my own beaming and championed across site after site was just… mildly unnerving. “Why has he shown up here to play with me?”

“I believe, my young Queen,” LeAnne patted my shoulder and smirked slightly, “the world is noticing just how good you are at being bad.”

The Word

Abscond (verb): Leave hurriedly and secretly, typically to avoid detection of or arrest for an unlawful action such as theft.

Ya know? I just enjoying writing the Queen of Diamonds! Even if she is going through some turmoil- maybe especially because she is. She has so many roads she could take, and several directions she’s being pulled in, with lots of influencers around her.

But at least it’s nice to have your talents noticed, right? 😉

I’m kind of learning her as I go, and I think that’s part of why she’s so fun to write. She wants to keep with her original motivations, but then new stakes and new temptations are arising. Haven’t we all experienced that occasionally? Sure, we’re not firing off laser guns to get it done (…hopefully) but I think we’ve all started a race with one finish line, and halfway through, realized the goal we want now is over a different hill.

Those are my rambling thoughts for the day with my little villain royalty. Happy racing, happy reading!

Today I am Demise

The Poem

On Death, And Loving You

If Death knocks on your door

He better rap mine too

If He doesn’t take me with Him

I’m coming after you

He’s granted mercy on the battle field

Looked away away when I was ill

But if He takes you from me

It’s His against my will

Like Orpheus I’ll travel

Like Hercules I’ll rise

And once I have you gathered

I’ll keep to good Lot’s eyes

I know Death’s to be honored

I know Death’s owed His due

But there’s no reason living

If I must do without you

So pay the ferry twice

And pack my things as well

Or ready Odin’s table

If there’s where we’re to dwell

But if Death will not take me

If He says I cannot go

Stop your mother’s mourning

For there’s no need for woe

We will depart together

Or we won’t depart at all

My love for you unceasing

And Death’s agreement, or downfall.

The Word

Demise (noun): 1. A person’s death. 2. Conveyance or transfer of property or a title by demising.
(verb) 1. Convey or grant (an estate) by will or lease.

This poem came from somewhere deep within me. I’m hesitant to explain- but I think we all can touch upon it. Be it sibling, partner, friend, we’ve had that unworldly blessed connection that we would go to the edge of the world for. And Easter, when Jesus drew the line and crossed it, seemed an appropriate time to celebrated such a blessed type of love.

Happy sunbathing, happy allergery-avoiding, happy egghunting, and as always- happy reading, dear reader.

Today I am Endure

The Story

It’s adorable really, the ways she tries to kill me.

The first time, she poisoned my wine. I was impressed, albeit irritated that she’d disturbed the smoothness of an expensive Chianti. She blushed with pride and anticipation when she saw me take a big gulp of my glass. Later that evening, I admired the pretty new robe she’d bought herself, told her I loved her, and was quite entertained with how well she pretended all was as it should be.

The next morning, I found the dealer who sold her the powdered ratbane, and snapped his neck. I didn’t want anyone else’s wine spoiled.

A few nights after that, she tried the smothering method. Less planning, more opportunistic, as I’d gone to bed a bit early after a long day spent brooding in my office. Our king bed with its gaudy frame she loved so would have been an excellent place for her to pose alongside my body, telling an officer how she’d come to check on me, offer me a pill for my head, only to find her dear unresponsive. But unfortunately for her, after she spent several long moments making sure my body had gone still under the silk covered pillow, I rolled over, and let out an obnoxious snore to let her know there was no need to call the authorities quite yet.

She let out a wail of frustration, I had to bury my head in the sheets not to laugh.

My least favorite was the gun. I’ve always disliked the use of gunpowder, except when they were developed into fireworks, some people are ingenious. Over time, humanity has found less and less honorable ways to commit violence and I cannot help but associate that with the gun itself. At least she chose a revolver, pairing it with those black tights I like under a gray pencil skirt. It was like she’d walked out of a noir detective movie and into our library.

“Yes, darling?” I’d said.

POP she’d replied.

“Oh my,” I answered, shifting to inspect the hole in my favorite reading chair, “what a terrible accident, dove. We’ll need to get you some lessons if marksmanship is going to be your new sport.”

POP

I stood, taking the hot instrument from her shaking hand, turning to see the second hole had hit my signed copy of The Lady of the Shroud in its place on the bookshelf. What an utter shame, it was going to take centuries to hunt another down.

“This thing is going off like crazy, sweet. Let me take it and have it checked by my man. And let’s get you a glass of wine, and here take my sweater, you’re shivering!”

All through dinner, she kept poking her little finger through the hole in my cardigan. It was so cute.

For a few weeks following the library incident, my poor sweet seemed to wane into a sliver of herself. I offered to bring her friends over for a party or buy her any trinket she desired, but nothing seemed to cheer her. I decided she needed some fresh air to liven her spirits. And yes, this brought a spark to her eye! So off we went, a tour around Europe. With each passing day I filled her with French croissants and chocolates, Italian wines and German meats, she seemed more like her brilliant self again. I was filled with joy! We laughed and danced through the cobbled streets of the old world, like a second honeymoon, lost in one another.

And then, when we reached Ireland, we were taking in the sunset, I peered into those deep dark eyes that enchanted me so, and she pushed me off the Cliffs of Moher.

How I chortled on the way down! Oh she’s so clever, my doting wife. My heart and stomach full, defenses down, and away I went! The story would have come together so simply too- we’d been drinking fine Irish whiskey all afternoon, and fooling around on the cliffside, how easily to believe a creature of my age could innocently loose their footing, leaving a shocked widow crying out to the wind.

When I finally made my way back to her, she had her hands on her hips. Her eyes were large as the boulders I’d landed on, but she was chewing on her tongue to keep her mouth from opening in awe.

“How clumsy am I! Sorry you had to wait for the climb up. Shall we go for another round of whiskey, love? Or should I call you lass here? HA!”

I offered her my arm and she took it, staring me down over our glasses all evening long.

Even though the Cliffs had let her down instead of me, my flower still appeared rejuvenated from our trip, and I was glad for it.

Her creativity really knew no bounds. Honestly, it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with her all those years ago- she looked so elegant, all in black, as we gazed at each other across her father’s coffin. He had not noticed the difference in his wine, apparently. She was capable of so much; she just needed someone around to encourage her avocations. “When you get bored playing bachelorette,” I whispered after the service, “I’d love to take you out to dinner. I think we’d have a lot of fun.”

And I was right! Since our wedding, she’d raised several champion race horses, built four successful charity foundations, one of which is international, patroned multiple young artists from unknown to world-renowned, and this new hobby was quite engrossing as well.

Look at these markings! You’d never notice the tiny dots between my toes unless one was looking hard for foul play, and who would look past an aneurism on someone with a couple silver streaks as I? She looked a little shocked in the morning when I came down for breakfast, but made me a coffee the way I like it all the same with cream, no sugar, and we chatted friendly over our eggs.

She loosened the straps on my saddle when we went horse riding. I of course had the trainer fired and she spent the rest of the day with the poor, spooked beast. I offered to buy her a new horse instead, but she said this one just needed more attention. I took that as a clue, as all good spouses should, and took her on a proper date that very evening, as well as throwing a party that weekend for all her favorite friends.

I’m not sure how she got our replica statue of Discobolus set on its edge, she’s such a lithe one. The timing had to be impeccable, and I couldn’t help but smirk at her calculations as the athlete came crashing down on me. Scratched the marble in the foyer terribly, though. She cooed such sweet nothings to me as we both blamed what absolutely must have been the new maids for such a mishap.

We took a romantic canoe ride across the pond in the back garden, and she had hidden a large brick in the picnic basket under the biscuits. No wonder she wouldn’t let me carry it for her. While I basked in the sun with my eyes closed, she tied this to my shoes and sent me over the edge of the boat. When I waded back to the shore, I told her we’d need to meet with the gardener. Wouldn’t a few more lily pads be lovely for when she was out here painting in the summer? She agreed, and offered to carry my wet clothes for me so I didn’t catch cold, the saint.

I was upset when we lost the mountain cabin though. It was so peaceful and quiet away from the world, up where the bears and blackberries grow. But the flames against the night sky were magnificent, like an ancient pyre. And I was so dazzled by her brilliance- not even the insurance inspector could figure out how the chimney flue latch had broken! Several days later we nuzzled under a blanket while she showed me the designs she’d drawn up for our new cabin. Such a renaissance woman, is mine.

The tripwire at the top of the stairs especially delighted me. She had to have put it up so quickly! I came out of my office, found her in the library, kissed the top of her head, and said I was going to freshen up for dinner. I was only in the bedroom for a moment to put on a clean shirt and wipe my face off. And how delicate her dainty fingers had to be, for the thing was insanely sharp- the ends of my slacks were now in irreparable ribbons where I lay. Yet, here I find her, unruffled, looking as if she has not moved an iota from where I last left her. The only notable difference when I reach her side is there are now two glasses of port on the small table next to her.

One for us each.

“Happy anniversary, my love,” she whispers against my cheek with a kiss.

“Til death do us part, my sweet,” I clink my glass to hers, and chuckle.

The Word

Endure (verb): 1. Suffer (something painful or difficult) patiently. 2. Remain in existence; last.

I feel like somewhere in the government, there are 3 lists of people who make the google searches like the ones I did while writing this story: 1. Potential Murders, 2. Potential Authors, 3. Might Be Both.

I’d like my own personal FBI stalker to know that I’m list #2 (which I know, is something list #3 would say) mostly because I’m probably way too clumsy to get away with anything I’d want to, so best to just let things be.

The further along I got in this short little number, I couldn’t help but think of Gomez Adams from the Adams Family. How he would be so very supportive and complimentary of Morticia if she’d decided her new hobby was to try to kill him and get away with it, haha. Gomez really is one of the top spouse goals, isn’t he?

Just a fun little one-off I wanted to get down on a very windy night. I hope you enjoy reading as much as I did writing, and find yourselves partners just as supportive of all your hobbies! But… different hobbies, hopefully.

And, as always, happy reading!

Today I am Lost

The Story

“You know, I loved the Rocky movies.”

“I swear to every god anyone has ever prayed to, I am going to punch you in the throat.”

“Loooot of good punches thrown in the Rocky mov-HUU!”

PRIVATE DARLUTH.”

“Apologies, Captain.”

The Captain’s shadow had fallen over the campfire, and the quiet chuckles came to a quick cease-fire.

“I understand,” her voice rumbled across the space, “that the air is tense. I acknowledge Sergeant Teak and those she took with her have been gone longer than usual. However, we have been schooled in the unusual for the past several centuries. And our best healer is among her crew, not ours. I expect you all to act accordingly.”

Captain Collins’s dark eyes scanned each of her pack. The fire flickered over their familiar faces; shoulders were low, spirits were low. She and Teak often played off each other with the Called as authority and cheerleader, but for the past several months, she’d been on her own with both roles. She knew in the morning, she would have to rustle up a good training to reenergize them as well as herself, for her own worries had crept in.

Teak would never go so long with no contact without good reason. She seemed to always find a way to get a message back to the Called, even if it meant training a set of migrating hummingbirds to carry a note together, or leaving an inside joke in some famous moment in world history for them to hear, Teak found a way. She’d never figured out how Teak had managed the jelly-donut speech mixup, but when Private Arrowood stopped laughing, he confirmed to the Captain that the radio’d speech meant Teak’s company was well and on the way home. Collins often joked that this was Teak’s extra talent while others had the Sight or Healing.

“There’s no such thing as having ‘the Talk’, Captain.” Sergeant Teak had rolled her eyes.

“Maybe it’s like speaking Tongues.”

“Could you take that back please, Captain? I see clouds and I prefer not to be struck by lightening.”

Yes, Captain Collins was worrying. But that came several counts down the list from keeping the Called organized and in line. It would keep them all sane… ish.

“Private Darluth, after you lend Private Elmer the energy to heal Private Jones’s neck yourself, the two of you will be on night duty together for the rest of the week. We will remain in camp here for another moon change in anticipation of Sergeant Teak’s return. Understood?”

“Yes, Captain,” Darluth nodded, red in his cheeks. From fury or embarrassment, it was hard to tell.

Jones merely nodded, one hand still on his neck.

“We have been called?!” the Captain growled.

“And we will answer!” the Called responded, with much more fervor than any of them were feeling.

~ ~

I stared into the stew pot in front of me. Steam rolled slowly to the top of the hut, but it wasn’t enough to warm the ice that had settled between my shoulders. I was tired. And cold. And sick of stew.

The strange but kind villagers had been happy to add us to their small trading route when we showed them how adept we were at hunting the quick mountain deer, once we got used to the snow. So for the past past serval weeks (maybe months? the sun didn’t seem to move here) our pattern had been thus: follow my gem’s hum into the mountains, get lost in a snow blizzard, head back following the ropes and notches system the villagers taught us, grab a couple deer on the way back into town, eat stew and mountain booze until it was our turn for night-watch, and repeat.

The villagers thought we were interesting, and we felt the same about them. McKoi was having an excellent experience exchanging medicinal knowledge with the village’s herbalist as well as their medicine woman. Genile got a little exercise trying to learn a type of slalom with the kids where they’d race and throw an etched stone. I tried it a few times to placate my crew; it was okay. Fendoialin was pouring over the many tomes in his pack constantly. No wonder that thing had been so heavy.

I, personally, was going to lose my mind! If we weren’t immortal, I’d think we’d died and gotten stuck in a frozen purgatory with oddly polite captors.

Genile sloshed the ladle around the pot. “We could eat with the village, they have offered many times.”

McKoi glance at me, then back at his bowl.

I sighed, “I know you all are bored with hearing this: but we cannot get too comfortable here. They have been very gracious, and I know they said they see travelers like us get stuck many seasons, but I’m sure it’s clear to them now with our excursions and everything that we are not the usual kind. No. We make our own meals, we eat only what we’ve seen cooked with our own eyes.”

“Then damn, I wish one of y’all knew how to make dumplings. Those things the kids eat look GOOD.”

“…Darluth knows how to make dumplings.”

Without looking up, I knew there were three sets of eyes on me. Despite how close the Called is, and the glances we occasionally got, neither of us had ever confirmed the minor romance between Private Darluth and I. But I was so exhausted, and tired of snow being on everything. and everywhere! and this damn gem just making shit up and damn it I missed him. And I was tired of this stew too!

But no reason to make myself the center of attention. I glanced up at Fendoialin, “Are the old rumors about you true?”

The angry caterpillars he called eyebrows shifted slightly over gray eyes. He seemed mildly irked, but settled himself back down before answering, “There are many tales of those that have seen my years, young Sergeant.”

I rolled my eyes. Here I thought we were all having a moment around the cook-fire and he had to be annoying as usual, “Yeah, I’m talking about the magic ones. The oracle ones. The Pythia-got-nothing-on-me ones. The why-you-were-chosen-to-hold-the-prophecy ones.”

“Ah.”

Fascinating. In all my years. All of them, I’d never heard Fendoialin stop at just the one syllable. The only sound in the hut was Genile choking on her stew, probably in similar shock, and then McKoi patting her on the back.

“Well?” I prompted again, swirling the cooling mush with my spoon.

But the wrinkled man did not look back up at me. In fact, it appeared he had dozed off.

“Gods help us,” I muttered, taking my still half-full bowl to empty and scrub in the snow, and maybe a walk to relax would be good too. I didn’t like being in the small hut for so long, and apparently Fendoialin’s new game was if he couldn’t irritate me by talking too much, he would do it by not talking at all.

I passed through the village heading towards the trail into the mountains. It was quiet, as strong winds had sent most villagers inside their family huts for cover. The paths to and from each little building had been beaten down from centuries of booted feet, and the warmth left behind from those shuffles seemed to keep most of the flurries from obscuring the aged routes.

Just as I was leaning over to grab a pack of leading ropes, I felt a presence join me in the rising gusts. I turned to see an approaching shape, gliding easily over icy walks.

“It’s not time to go out,” came a smokey voice under the deerskin hood.

My shoulders dropped, I didn’t feel like arguing with anyone right now, especially an innocent old village person, “I know it’s not a good time, with the wind rising, but I’ve got work to do.”

“Your work can wait, it has waited all this time, hasn’t it?”

Starting to sound a bit like Fendoialin, this one.

“I… suppose.”

“Come. Get warm with me, give your companions a break.”

Give my companions a break? From ME?! Well I never-

And yet, the wind picked up again. And if something went sideways, I could defiantly take this man with one arm cut off at my shoulder. Hell, I’d fought off a ThunderKishi with less.

So I followed the fur-covered shadow back to the open flap of his hut. I didn’t even hesitate to go inside. I sensed no one else within, and if this hunched being was truly wishing to ambush me- I was in the mood for a tussle.

“You can ease yourself, old hunter.”

Loooot of people judging my age this evening. Would love for this guy and Fendoialin to square off whether I was ‘young sergeant’ or ‘old hunter.’ I feel like it would be a very heated, yet very slow, conversation.

Also pretty rude to call me old when it sounded like this one had stoked one too many pipes. I hadn’t aged in centuries! But maybe it was a cultural thing.

“Bring the fire back up so we do not freeze while we cook.”

I wasn’t used to taking orders from anyone other than Captain Collins, but nothing in the past serval… months (really, how long had we been there?) had gotten me anywhere. I wished Darluth were there to give me a little Sight-nudge. I pretended to scratch my chest to feel for my gem, see if I got any hints from that. Nothing. Alright I was on my own, and my instincts said that I hadn’t finished my boring bowl of stew and he said the word ‘cook.’

So I worked on the fire, as spookily instructed.

Keeping an eye on the being in my peripheral, I brought the fire up from small embers to a soft roar. As I did so, I saw my new companion shuffle off their outer coat and unwrap a long shawl to reveal auburn hair in bundled-up braids and a deep blue kurta. It flowed still lake water over woolen pants that led to very small booted feet. I glanced quickly around the room, with shelves of jars and dried plants hanging from the elevated ceiling.

Oh, excuse me, I was dealing with the herbalist.

She knew who I was the moment we met, and it’d taken me this long to figure her out. All this time in isolation with an unsuccessful Champion hunt had gotten me off my game. It was no wonder the privates were sassing me.

“That’s warm enough, now you will help me mix,” She was pulling jars and bright clay bowls from various shelfs, and one bundle from the ceiling.

We sat across from each other over a short table, with various packages nearby I recognized from sectioning out the mountain deer we caught.

I finally ventured, “what are we making?”

“You and yours are quite lost. Me and mine have enjoyed your company, but it’s time you found your way again. Together we’ll make the Feast of Fortune so you can find your next steps.”

Help from outside The Called was… damned unusual, but as Sergeant it was my job to get my small crew back to everyone safely, and with a mission complete. And I hadn’t gotten very far by our usual methods. So if I was the one risking it tonight, I was willing to take a little chancing.

“Okay, but first- how do you know we’re lost?”

Finally her face lifted enough for me to see it in the fire light- and she laughed! Her skin was both sun kissed and wind-torn, and I found it immeasurably beautiful. Her dark eyes were bright with humor, surrounded as they were with age and wisdom. I could see the elaborate bronze earrings that sang slightly when she moved her head, no longer muffled by her hood. She reminded me so much of the Arrowood privates, I ached again for the full company.

“Didi! Are you not lost?!”

Okay, well, she did have me there. But I thought we were doing a better job of pretending we were just mildly inconvenienced travelers rather than super wayward scouts. Guess not. I was going to try to play it off a little better though, still had to keep appearances. Still wanted to get back in one piece.

“We are indeed looking for something we haven’t found yet,” I nodded, focusing on the spices she was pouring into the muddler before me, “I’ll say that much.”

“Mmm, and you feel guilty because you’re their leader.”

I didn’t remember signing up for this therapy session. “I am frustrated.”

She slid the muddler over to me. I began to grind the small multi-shaped seeds.

“Your healing companion thinks very highly of you.”

I snorted, “Well that’s good to hear, if they’re talking behind my back it might as well be good things.”

She laughed at that too, and it felt nice to not be sniping with someone.

As I was rolling thin dough sheets out, as strictly instructed, over and over again, I let out, “I know my duties. I’m good at them. But sometimes things just don’t work out. And because I’m in charge, that feels like I let them down.”

“Mmm,” she nodded, “and each time you think you’ve let them down, you allow doubt in. And doubt alone is like dry sand. Nothing can grow within in. Yet, with a little water, even the cactus flower blooms.”

I stopped my floury restorations. “You’ve seen a cactus flower?”

“You are in the mountains yet you were not always here. Can I not be the same?”

I was beginning to wonder if all older people talked in such phrases. Would I talk like that if I got wrinkly and propheqierical? I certainly felt old with all these years, so I made a short prayer to any gods listening that I would never talk like that to the younger Called.

After mixing the minced deer meet with the spices, she spread the mash over the sheets. She showed me to dip my finger in a bowl of slowly melting snow to wet the edges of the dough, “water of the mountain, it flows from Saraswati and seals your fortune,” she whispered.

And then how to make exactly seven folds for the Seven Sisters in the stars, daughters of Atlas and followers of Artemis, “they know both the sky and the hunt, hunters like you.”

I nodded and folded. My calloused fingers were not coherent at pinching the dough in the delicate pattern as hers, and often I pulled too hard or added not enough water and had to start again or else lose a fold or watch the pastry slide open- but I’d been around too long to question someone about gods and stars.

With the herbalist successfully stuffing many more dumplings than I, she told me to hook a pan into the chain above the fire and pour in some oil.

“Shall I put these in?” I offered.

“No, no, they need one last touch!” She shuffled to her shelves and back, seeming alight with glee. In between her hands was a small clay jar with a glass stopper.

The hair on the back of my neck raised. Perhaps I had gotten too comfortable here, “what is in that?”

“The Dust of Destiny!” She pulled the glass stopper out with a flare, taking in a deep inhale, “Oh didi, this traveled a long a way to get to our Feast of Fortune tonight.”

She hummed as she sprinkled it over the pale crescent pouches on the table. It was a tune that sounded so familiar, and yet for the many lives of me, I couldn’t place it.

“What will it do?” I whispered.

“The Dust of Destiny will ignite the heat inside you! You will be filled and all we have done tonight will not be lost again once morning comes.”

I couldn’t help it, I slid a finger across the plate where a little gold powder had landed and lifted it to my lips “…this is cumin.”

“Yes, they are the same.”

When she looked up and saw my glare, she burst into another round of very joyful laughter.

We sat in easy conversation as we steamed and folded and ate many, many destiny-dusted dumplings. I told her about my favorite travels deep into steamy forests where colorful creatures dwelled, and she regaled me how these quiet people had come to live in the mountains, how she too had traveled to cities when she was young but had been happy to return and be a part of the village’s simpler steady life.

When I was near full to bursting, she told me it was time for rest, and sent me away with a large satchel of dumplings, and a few collections of herbs for McKoi.

“They may come of use to him, they may not.” She mumbled, patting my heavy laden arms.

“Can’t he come get them in the morning?”

She gave me a knowing look, “Rest well, didi. I enjoyed your company this evening.”

“Same to you, and thank you for the dumplings. They’ll be so pleased.”

After fighting with the wind again, I made it back to our own little gray hut. I realized how long I’d let us stay in such a colorless place, compared to the herbalist with all her dried flowers hanging and bright pottery.

I held a dumpling in front of Genile’s nose until she woke up, “FOR MEEE-MPHFF?!” she squealed, the savory pocket halfway down her throat before I could even answer.

McKoi was already pawing the jars and wraps of herbs he’d been sent, but still managed a “I assume the ban has been lifted on village food then?” between bites.

“Wha- what’s all this about?! Waking up an old man in the middle of the-” Fendoialin grumbled to a state of consciousness, but was also quickly placated with warm food-that-wasn’t-deer-stew.

“Alright, alright,” I eased onto my own sleeping satchel, which felt cold as the snow beneath it compared to the herbalist’s fine rugs and pillows, “settle down crew, my heart hasn’t grown three sizes or anything.”

“You look better though-“

I shot McKoi a look.

“Healthier, I mean, Sergeant. A healer’s opinion, is all,” he put his eyes back to organizing his new dried tid bits, “Are you going to tell us of your evening adventures, Serg?”

“Yes, but not now, Fendoialin is right.”

I took pleasure in Genile choking on her 10th dumpling in shock. McKoi lost count of his jars.

Even Fendoialin looked at me, eyes as shocked wide as I imagined his cumbrous brows would allow, “Pardon?”

“Well it’s quite late, as you said. And I’ve decided we’ll be leaving here in the morning. I expect you all to be packed and ready before the villagers rise, and I plan to get some rest before that.”

Cowardly, I played with the drawstrings of my sack for a moment, pretending to stuff some tools in, before I looked up. I’d been expecting a where are we going?, or why are we leaving now? or did you get a sign from your gem then? Any or all of the above.

But when I did, I was met instead with determined nods, a chorus of “Yes, Sergeant”s. And Genile’s cheeks puffed out like a squirrel’s.

I smiled at her, nodded back to them all, and settled down for a quick doze. We were going, and I knew the way.

The Word

Lost (Adj): 1. Unable to find one’s way; not knowing one’s whereabouts. 2. Denoting something that has been taken away or cannot be recovered.

Have you ever been stuck somewhere? *Laughs in 2020*

No but really. I guess we all have now, but really stuck. Side of the road with a blown tire and no phone, or walking through a new city and yep- that turn looks exactly the same as the last, or you went off the trail for just a moment to get a pretty picture and now the sun is going down a bit quickly?

Well The Called have been up on that mountain for a long time.

No really. In real life these 4 Called have been up there almost six months! I put them up there in August of 2020!

I’ve been a little lost myself with my writing. I’m proud of the words I’ve put out, but it’s been some really chase-and-tackle work with my muse during this pandemic, and LOTS more deleting and rewriting than I’ve ever done before. It was like I kept marching up that path with Sergeant Teak, only to lose my way and have to follow the breadcrumbs back.

I’m sure the whole world is feeling that in at least a couple points of their lives. I don’t have any answers. But sometimes it’s nice to know that we’re not out there alone, wondering in the snow. If we bump into each other, we can at least huddle for a bit before going on our way.

Although I have tried eating lots of dumplings too, and it does help. Sergeant Teak found her way, so here’s hoping we all find ours.

Happy hiking, and happy reading 🙂

P.S.

Things I ‘Borrowed’ From Other Cultures for My Story (Not stuck on this name for the section)

As you may have noticed, The Called travel a lot, and their world is sometimes like ours, sometimes kinda like ours, and sometimes very much not like ours at all. As my growth as both a writer and a human person, I know that just throwing in words from other cultures just to spice up your writing isn’t cute. I do try to use context clues as to where The Called are or what their kinda-world-location can be most related to, though. But I think in not giving any sort of definition in these stories, it sounds a lot more like me trying to claim or re-define those words as my own, rather than the context clues I mean them to be. So I’m going to try this little section below- and I would love feedback (via the Connect page) on how readers feel on this.

Pythia – Highly regarded oracle of Delphi, said to channel prophesies directly from the gods

Didi – Nepali word meaning ‘auntie’ as in older female family member, term of endearment or respect

Saraswati – One of the Tridevi in Hinduism, the goddess of learning, wisdom, music, and aesthetics

Atlas – Greek god who held up the sky, father of the Seven Sister stars

Artemis – Greek goddess of the hunt, wild nature, and (hilariously)* chastity

Hajur ama – Nepali respectful word for Grandmother; often affectionally shortened to “Ama”

(Thunder) Kishi – Angola mythological monster, said to have two heads, one of a man and one a hyena. [I added the thunder part for The Called cause why not make them dodge lightening too]

*it’s hilarious that she’s the goddess of chastity because really this can only be a stiff-collard patriarchy’s opinion on things. She’s often referred to as “Appollo’s virginal sister” yet to her women priests she charges they bring in the wild animals, the “women driven mad” (coughRUN AWAYScough), demands her worship have “dances wild as waves”, the daughter of a TITAN, has all these nymphs and ladies-in-waiting with tales Dionysus would be jealous of. She doesn’t refuse to take lovers, she refuses to take lovers of low quality. And just as the neckbeards of today, men of history decided that if she didn’t pick everybody, she must be the virgin queen, so thank goodness her only big myth with a male is that of her being super picky, or she’d be stuffed into the back pages of mythology as a monster… #justiceforMedusa