“…I had no idea.”

391 words. One person waits for hours for their partner to return home, and yet their partner fails to show up.

I waited for hours for them to come home. The full bottle of wine turned into an empty one before I had finally collapsed and fallen asleep, my mascara streaming down my face.

The first hour of waiting was only a little bit uneasy. I kept telling myself that they’d return, milking a glass of wine as I waited. I threw on a record, and listened to both sides the whole way through before finally feeling that unease become a reality. By the second hour I was desperately texting them, calling them, worried something tragic had happened to them and that tomorrow morning I’d see their face in the obituary. By the third hour I was drinking straight from the bottle and bawling my eyes out, screaming at the sky for letting them die. Or was I screaming because they had abandoned me? Either way, the fourth hour saw me scrawling in my journal furiously about how much I hated them and never wanted to see them again. I think at this point I blacked out, but I know I must have cut up my journal because I found myself stepping on slips of paper as I trudged into the bathroom to vomit. I wasn’t a pretty sight, and I no longer knew how many hours had passed. I do know I eventually had fallen asleep again, in an empty bed.

Yet, I woke up with a clean face. My mascara had been washed off, along with everything else. There was one blemish on my face, however: a bright red lipstick mark on my left cheek. My journal had been swept up and partially taped together, but some pages were too destroyed to piece together again. The bottle had been picked up and put into my recycling bin– or theirs, more likely– and instead a half-empty lukewarm cup of coffee and a glass of water sat on my bedside table.

I slowly made my way to the kitchen, my brain blistering and my pulse echoing through the hallway. They were in the kitchen, reading a book. They looked up at me and smiled before standing up, sliding their chair in, and helping me to the table. They kissed me on the forehead. “I appreciate the thought,” they whispered to me, “but I don’t think that’s something I could do for you.”

Skin For Steel

870 words. How far are you willing to go to change your body into what you truly desire? Would you sell your flesh to a terrible creature?

Everyday is tiring. I wake up and feel my own flesh begging to be burnt off. I see my arms and legs and they don’t feel right on my body. I drag myself into the bathroom everyday, trying my very damnedest to make my body what I want it to be. I desire so much more than what this world has given me.

I go to work tired. I’ve already spent hours just trying to make my body less hate-able, and yet you ask me to show up here and work for even longer with a body that I don’t want to see, and I don’t want others to see? You desire I break myself for pennies just so that I can live, and yet you do nothing to aid my life in any meaningful way. I see.

I return home tired. Sometimes I’m too tired to hate myself. I’m okay with those days. At least I can go to bed with some peace in mind, instead of staring at myself and despising my own despicable form. It’s a form of peace given to me only by true turmoil.

I repeat this cycle constantly. What few days I have off are dedicated to staring at a wall, hoping that something will crawl out of it and hand-deliver to me the body of my choosing. They’ll let me be something that I deserve to be.

It never happens.

I have waited for so long.

And I am tired of waiting.

I have taken matters into my own hands. My blank wall is now covered in black ink, a seal I crafted myself, one that will merge my reality with that of something unknown to everyone before today. Years of staring at this imperfect and beaten wall have finally given me the solution that I crave. 

I drag a knife through my palm, doing to my flesh exactly what it deserve for being so wretched, and I drag it across the center of the seal. The seal’s black begins to change into a rust. The smell of rotted metal takes over the room.

A cursed voice that sounds like the screeching of metal upon metal, dust upon dust, cries out in pain. It’s form begins to climb out of the wall. It’s a disgusting amalgamate of weathered metal plating and muscle. Its huge arm is the first thing to leave the seal, digging its dulled talons into my flooring to pull itself out, leading next with its head.

It’s eyes are never blinking cameras. The dull lenses move to and fro, scouting the surroundings. They quickly settle on me. The creature screeches again.

“Hello, companion,” I say to the thing. “I have brought you here. You owe me no debt, but I ask you a favor anyway.”

The creature slams it’s one exposed fist into the ground next to me and screeches. I continue to speak. “You can change me, can’t you? Please. take my worthless tissue and make me into something more suitable!”

I throw myself onto my knees before this creature. Its lenses adjust accordingly. It stares deep into my being, deeper than anything had ever stared before. I feel it stare at all of my flaws, and all of my imperfections. It strips me of my clothing, my skin, my muscle, my bones, until I am nothing more than an essence to it.

This terrible beast suddenly moves its one arm to grab me and lift me into the air. It begins to squeeze me, tighter and tighter. I sigh as I feel my capacity for air disappear.

The beast digs its elbow into my wall, and drags its other shoulder into my plane of existence. I cry. Its second arm enters my world.

With its alternate hand, it gently places its pinprick extremities upon my body, each needle sending an individual chill through the core of my very being, as if stabbing through all of me and into the very thing that makes me who I am.

It then begins to literally pierce my body, in this physical plane. I scream as bone and fiber was equally punctured, my body quickly failing to keep me alive. And yet I do not die. 

This terrible, horrid monster crushes and rips my body apart, it’s muscles rippling with every motion it makes, screams echoing through my very soul. And yet I do not die.

I am thrown aside, piece by piece, my body completely and utterly decimated. If someone were to stumble upon me and try to discover who I am, they would find no answer. And yet I do not die.

The awful creature grinds its fists, leaving metal chips and shavings on the ground where I once was. I will my flesh toward this new vessel that is slowly building itself.

Flesh and steel combine, giving me a form that is unlike any other form this world has seen. I feel my new appendages move. I drag my accursed limbs across the ground, adjusting to my new form. 

I shriek, releasing a shrill sound not unlike nails on a chalkboard.

This wonderful bastard shrieks as well, resonating with my own.

I have finally become what I’ve always envisioned.

Elisa

7189 words. Claire’s estranged uncle comes to visit, along with his children. One of them, Elisa, becomes fast friends with Claire. However, with both of their fathers fighting, they aren’t sure this friendship will last

“Claire, Stand straighter. You are going to be in the presence of a military official in a few moments. You are required to show him utter respect,” Dad told me. He was standing so straight that I couldn’t really believe it.

“I’m standing as straight as I can, Dad,” I replied.

“Father. I am your father in the presence of others. Do well to remember that.”

“Yes, Father. Am I standing straight enough?” I asked.

Dad sighed. “It will have to do. Gregory will be here any moment.”

Dad, all of the butlers, and I stared at the door. Our doorbell would ring at any moment, and then a butler would open the door. In would walk in my uncle Gregory, we would greet him, and then I would go and do whatever I did. I didn’t have any lessons for this week, since Gregory was visiting.

Then, a rumbling set of bells began to ring. Even though electric doorbells existed, Dad insisted on keeping our old bells. You could hear them from out in the fields if you were quiet.

As a butler opened the doors, I heard the rain outside grow in volume for a short second. Then a few men walked in, and the butler shut the door behind them. The sound of the rain almost disappeared entirely.

One of the men was older then the other two, his beard and hair showing the start of grey. The other two were maybe half of his age at best. They both had sandy brown hair that was messily left out in loose waves.

“Richard, it’s good to see you!” The oldest man proclaimed. His voice echoed through the building. He spoke again, but quieter. “Ah, oops. I forgot how hollow your home is. Sorry.”

“No matter,” Dad said. “Welcome back, Gregory. Gregory, this is my daughter, Claire.” Dad moved his hand to exaggerate me.

Gregory stepped toward me, and shoved his hand toward me. “Nice to meet you Claire. How old are you?”

I took his hand. “I’m ten, sir.”

“Sir? No, no, I’m not a sir to you. I’m just your uncle Gregory. You can just call me Greg.” Greg shook my hand, then turned back to the men he had brought with him.

“When was the last time you saw my children, Richard? What were they, ten and six? No matter, This is Spencer, and this is Ray.” Spencer waved when he was introduced, and so did Ray. Ray was a bit shorter than Spencer, so I assumed he was the younger of the two.

“Has Elisa gotten inside yet?” Gregory asked.

“She insisted on taking her bags in herself,” Ray replied.

“Daft girl. I told her that someone else would get them. She doesn’t listen, but that just makes more work for her.” Gregory walked over to the door and opened it. “ELISA! COME INSIDE, IT’S POURING OUT THERE!”

Gregory held the door open until Elisa appeared inside. I gasped. Elisa was a girl! She had blonde hair cut just below her chin. It was drenched in rain. Her eyes were a golden hazel, and she had a few freckles crossing her nose. Her cheeks were thin, and led down to two jaw bones that connected in a single, defined point. She was shorter than Ray by at least a few inches, but her height wasn’t boosted by any sort of heel. She wore a black dress, with the skirt cutting just below her knees. She had a thin jacket on over her dress, which had protected some of her from the rain. Under each arm was crooked a small bag, and she held two more in her hands.

“Everyone, this is-”

“I’m Elisa,” She proclaimed. Her voice also echoed through the building, but not as loudly as Greg’s did at first.

“Yes. She’s Elisa.” Gregory shut the door, and the rain sounds disappeared again.

“I’ll show you to your room, Gregory,” Dad said. “Spencer, you go with Pete. And Ray, you go with Mark.” Dad pointed to Pete and Mark, the two of them led the other two away.

Dad turned to me. “Claire, I will trust you to take Elisa to a fitting room. You know about… girls. So you should be able to find her a room she will be comfortable with.” Dad looked back to Greg. “Let’s go, Greg.”

Dad led Greg up the stairs, and into the second floor. I watched them go.

“Claire was it?”

I jumped and turned around. Elisa was behind me.

“Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you! Really, that was an accident, I wasn’t trying anything on purpose, cross my heart.”

“You’re fine,” I said. “I’m Claire.”

“Lovely name, Claire. Well, where are we off to?” Elisa smiled at me. I felt my knees grow weak. I didn’t know how to respond.

“Um, well, uh, my room is the only real girl-room,” I started to play with the bottom of my shirt. Dad preferred I wear trousers over any dresses or skirts. “But it’s a lot like all of the boy-rooms in the house, too.”

“That’s fine,” Elisa said. “I’m used to boy-rooms. Whenever Pop tells the places that we’re staying that he has three kids, they always assume three boys. Although, I don’t think there’s really much of a difference between boy-rooms and girl-rooms. What’s your room look like?”

I blinked a few times. “Well, um, I can show you my room.”

“That would be lovely!” Elisa’s voice echoed again. She cleared her throat and whispered. “Sorry about that. I’m not used to places being so hollow.”

“That’s what Greg said.” I began walking up the stairs, and Elisa followed me.

“Ah, I suppose that’s proper. Pop can get pretty loud too. He’s used to being on boats and airplanes for when he moves from place to place, and those are much louder than houses. I suppose I am, too, because I’m often riding those boats and airplanes with him.” Elisa looked around at the walls and hallways while I led her away.

“Quite the place you’ve got here,” She said. “There sure are a lot of paintings and the like. Do you have any suits of armor stashed in any of these halls?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve never seen one, anyway. Maybe you could ask my father.”

“I’d rather not. He seems somewhat… Intense? Yeah, intense is the word.”

I didn’t say anything. I really didn’t know what to say. Either way, I stopped walking.

“Hey, how old are you, anyway?”

“I’m ten years old.”

“I’m sixteen. Boy, you’re so mature, I could have sworn you were at least twelve. I could believe that you were older than me, honestly.”

I smiled. “Thank you. We’re here, by the way.”

“Oh, I had noticed we weren’t walking anymore.”

I opened my door, and stepped inside.

“My, your room is a lovely little place, isn’t it?” Elisa asked.

“It’s most certainly my room,” I responded. I had never really thought of my bedroom as anything special. It was just another room, except I kept my things in it.

Elisa stood next to my bed. “You’ve a rather large bed for such a small girl. Do you ever just feel buried in your own blankets?”

“Not really. I kind of lay on top of the blankets more than under them, anyway.”

“So do I, actually. The cots on navy ships can be rather stiff, and the blankets are better used to make it softer.” Elisa threw herself onto my bed, spreading her limbs across the mattress. “My, this is rather comfy, too. Sometimes I can get a little cold, but it’s better than a little stiff in the morning. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Probably. I’ve never been on a boat. I usually just ride to town with father and mind my manners when I’m with an elder.” Elisa was a lot different than what I thought girls were like.

“Well, don’t bother minding your manners with me. We’re friends, and friends needn’t make each other feel uncomfortable.” Elisa sat up and smiled at me. I shuddered at her smile.

“What do you do for fun around here?” She asked.

“Well, I read a lot of books, usually. When the weather is nice I like to go outside and find bugs. I just look at them.”

Elisa looked around the room, and at some of my bookshelves. “My, you do have quite a few books, don’t you? You’re quite the young scholar.”

“Thank you,” I replied.

“Have you ever tried to play hide and seek in this place?” Elisa asked. She was barely trying to hide a smirk from me.

I blinked at her. “None of the butlers have ever asked me to play. I haven’t ever had any friends over, either.”

“Oh, or tag! Tag would be a great game to play around here! So many hallways and places to go… Do you ever wonder if you have any secret passages connecting rooms you wouldn’t think to be connected?” Elisa was no longer hiding her smile.

I- I hadn’t considered that,” I confessed.

“Well, what do you say you and I find some secret passages?” Elisa proposed.

I couldn’t help myself anymore. I smiled at her, and nodded.

***

Elisa and I were playing hide and seek, and I was hiding. I had found a perfect little closet to hide in, and I was trying my hardest not to laugh at how smart it was.

Then, I heard voices. They were quiet at first, but they grew louder as they entered the room.

“Gregory, you know they can’t be reasoned with.” It was Dad’s voice. “They attacked America unprovoked. They want a racial cleansing just as badly as the Germans do. You’re wasting your time there, and you know it.”

“Well, the Japs that I’ve met haven’t been so cruel. They’re rather fine fellows, and we have lovely conversations. They understand what’s at risk as well as I do, and they are willing to discuss the war-”

“Do you mean that they are willing to discuss our conditions of surrender? They don’t give a damn about peace; they give a damn about taking over the world!”

“No, no, no! Yes, there are power-hungry madmen in Japan, but there are power-hungry madmen here, too! Have you not seen how we are still taking over India? Our “great leader” is currently occupying another country and attempting to steal from them! Churchill is not a saint, and we should be as loathe to trust him as we are the Japanese war leaders! I’m trying to make a difference, damn it!” Uncle Greg was doing his best not to yell, but he was still rather loud.

Footsteps prattled down the hallway. “Claire, I’m coming to find you!” Elisa shouted.

“We’ll finish this discussion another time,” Dad said.

“That’s an agreeable idea,” said Greg. “Let’s see what your servants are cooking up in the kitchen, eh?”

I heard Dad and Greg walk out of the room. “Good evening, Elisa,” said Dad.

“Good evening, Richard. My, you startled me. I didn’t expect to see you suddenly appear from that room, with Pop in tow.”

“Yes, well, I’m giving him the grand tour. We’re heading for the kitchen now. Care to join us?” He asked.

“Oh, I’d love to, but I’m trying to find Claire. We’re playing hide-and-seek. Don’t tell Claire I’m out here.”

“Ah. I see. Well, I’m certain she couldn’t hear your shouting in the hallway either.”

Elisa laughed. “That’s part of the fun.”

“Hmm. Alright, well, let’s be off, Greg.” The footsteps of Greg and Dad continued away, into silence. I heard Elisa step into the room.

“Oh, Claire, where are you? Could you be hiding in here!” Claire opened a cupboard very loudly. I quietly opened the doors to the closet I was in and slid out.

“Oh, there you are, Claire! You know, it’s not as fun if you just come out of hiding. I’m supposed to find you.”

“Dad and Uncle Greg were talking about the war,” I said, ignoring her statement.

“What?” Elisa looked surprised. “What did they say?” She suddenly moved very close to me, and grabbed my hands.

“Dad seemed to want Greg to stop trying to talk to the Japanese. He said they are bad people. Then Greg said that Churchill is a bad person too.”

“Oh my,” Elisa looked at the floor as she said this. “I- I was worried about this.”

“What’s wrong, Elisa?” I asked.

I could see her eyes start to moisten over. “I don’t want to leave again,” she whispered. “I don’t want to leave anymore.”

“Elisa,” I paused. “Elisa…” I pulled Elisa close to me. “Elisa, you can stay with me. I’ll let you stay with me for as long as you want.”

She sobbed into my chest, and I let her.

***

That night, we all had dinner. We all sat around a table that Dad had. It wasn’t the largest table in the house, but it was large enough for all of us.

Greg was telling a story. “So I said to the man, in perfect Japanese, ‘If you won’t have him, you won’t have me either!’ And then my friend said, in flawless English, ‘I believe you are mistaken. He is more Japanese than I.’” Greg erupted into laughter, and nearly everyone else followed suit. I didn’t get it.

“Why was the man being Japanese a problem?” I asked. Dad swiftly sighed.

“Well, erm,” Greg began, “It’s because we are at war with them. That makes some of the folks around here nervous. They didn’t really know that he was born and raised here the same as you or I.”

“The word is racism,” Dad said. “The shopkeep was just racist. I’ve told you what racism is before, correct?”

“Oh, of course, Father. That makes sense now.” I smiled at Greg and Dad. Dad gave a concerned look over to Greg. Greg didn’t see it.

“So how come all of your staff are men?” Spencer asked.

“Men are what were available,” Dad responded. “There weren’t many women willing to travel out this way. It is rather secluded. Many of them have children to care for. The men here are mostly bachelors.”

“I suppose that makes sense. I’ve just never seen a home with butlers but no maids.” Spencer shrugged.

“Yes, well, the butlers do their jobs well enough. I haven’t a need for a maid at the moment. Besides, Elisa grew up surrounded by Navy men. She’s just fine.” Richard took a bite of his food.

“Oh, sir, he didn’t mean to-” Ray started.

“That’s rather true, Richard. Elisa is a perfectly healthy girl, right?” Greg asked.

Elisa nodded. “Of course. I’m as healthy as you could expect. Not an ounce of scurvy in my gums, see?” Elisa peeled her bottom lip down, showing off her red gums.

“That’s not quite what I meant,” Greg said. Elisa laughed.

“Normal is just what boring people tell you to be, so that they feel okay being boring. I don’t need to be boring, because I don’t want to be boring.” Elisa twisted her fork in her hand. Her plate was already empty.

“That’s one way to look at it,” Ray said. “Most people just call her ‘eccentric.’” He laughed, and Elisa did too. I laughed with them.

“Oh, bugger off. You would hate to have a boring sister and you know it,” Elisa informed him. Everyone laughed along with her.

“It’s never a bad thing for a girl to speak her mind,” Dad said.

I took that as an opportunity. “Well, I’m finished eating,” I said. “May I be excused?” Much like Elisa, I hadn’t said much during dinner, so I had finished eating faster than everyone.

“You’re excused,” Dad told me.

“Thank you, father.”

“I’ll head off, too,” Elisa said. “Keep the young one out of trouble.”

Dad laughed. “Good luck finding her in trouble to begin with.”

I walked out of the dining room, and Elisa followed me.

“It was starting to feel a bit stiff in there, don’t you think?” Elisa asked.

“What do you mean?” I asked in return.

“Well, there was a lot of skirting around the war. You forced them to face a certain reality. I think that the whole dinner was just a tad rough, eh?” Elisa nudged me as she said that.

“I suppose so. I never really thought about it.” I kept walking down the hall, toward my room.

“You know, this place is rather spooky at night,” Elisa mentioned.

“You use some odd words, Elisa. What is spooky and comfy?”

“Oh! Right, those aren’t very common words. Well, Spooky is just a word for frightening, and comfy is an easier way to say comfortable,” she replied. I went into my room and hopped onto my bed.

“Why not just say frightening or comfortable, then?” I asked. Elisa hopped onto the bed next to me.

“Well, I just like spooky and comfy more. They’re just fun words.” Elisa laid back on the bed, staring at the ceiling. I laid back and stared with her.

“Where do you learn fun words?” I asked.

“Not in dusty old books. Not to say they’re bad, just that they’re old. Rather, you learn these words from other people. They slowly become more popular with time, and so more people will want to use them. I think it’s interesting that I can simply help in making a word popular.” I glanced at Elisa. Her eyes were bright.

“Have you ever tried making up a word?” I asked. Elisa turned her head to look at me.

“Not really. I think making up new words is actually rather difficult.” Elisa smirked at me. “Do you want to try and make up a new word?”

“No. I like the words I already know,” I replied.

“Yeah, there are a lot of good words. That’s probably why I never made up any words. It’s hard, anyway. Trying to make up a new word take so much work.” Elisa looked back at the ceiling.

I used my hand to draw shapes in the air. “Sometimes I like to pretend that I’m painting beautiful scenes in the sky. I asked Dad for a painting set one time. He told me he would see what he could do.”

“Well, how long ago did you ask?”

“I don’t remember. A long time ago.”

Elisa pat my belly. I think she was trying to comfort me. “That’s alright. You’re young. You’ll always have time to paint when you’re older. Who knows, maybe tomorrow he’ll buy that paint set you want. There’s always time.”

I shrugged. “Maybe.”

“I want to go to bed, I think,” Elisa informed me.

“I think that’s a good idea.” I shot up. “I never showed you to your room!”

“Oh, that’s fine,” Elisa said, “I can just share a bed with you. There’s clearly plenty of space.”

I put my hand on my chin, and thought about it. I liked Elisa a lot, and I didn’t think any harm could come from it.

“Okay, then. Just turn out the light.”

***

I woke up, and rolled over. Elisa wasn’t in the bed.

I leapt up and turned on the light in my room. Elisa was gone. I stepped out into the hallway to look for her.

My home was especially quiet tonight. I felt like at any moment, one of my footsteps could create a huge echo.

I creeped down the hallway, careful to avoid waking anyone up or make any noise. I peeked into various rooms, seeing if Elisa was inside. I consistently couldn’t find her. Then, I cracked a door open, and I was facing a pair of legs.

“Dad-” I started.

“Oh, Claire. It’s good to see you. Please, come inside.” Dad opened the door, and motioned for me to enter. I did. He was still wearing his day-clothes.

“Claire, you’ve been getting along well with Elisa, haven’t you?” He sat down in an armchair, and took a drink from a glass. I think it was just water, but it might have been a clear alcohol.

“Elisa is my friend,” I politely informed him. I hopped into my own armchair, and looked around for a glass of water for me to drink. I tried hard not to smile as I took the glass on the table next to me, and sniffed it to make sure it was water.

“That’s very good. It’s always good to have friends,” Dad responded. He looked over at the lit fireplace. “I haven’t given you many chances to make friends.”

“I’m not sure what you mean, dad.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I was just thinking out loud.”

I nodded.

“I never told you much about your mother, Claire.”

I shook my head, and took a drink from my cup.

“Well, your mother chose your name. It was something that she had heard and liked a lot. She died when you were only two.” Dad nodded, and took a drink from his own cup. He continued. “We knew that it was getting worse for her for a while, but she told me she wanted a child before she passed. I told her we would try. I would do anything for her. She told me: ‘If it’s a boy, name him Thomas. If it’s a girl, name her Claire. So I did. So we did.”

I already knew my mother had died when I was two years old. Jeff had told me. She died of cancer, specifically. Her heart had failed her.

Dad was looking rather sad. I wanted to hug him.

“I think having you made her healthier, for a while. She was in terrible shape before she was pregnant with you, but she marginally improved before you were born, and after. I was terrified that the stresses of pregnancy would be too much for her. I was so glad to be wrong.”

Dad sighed, and finished the rest of his glass. “You are all I have left of your mother. I wasn’t sure what to do with you, for so long. I didn’t want to love another woman after she died, and I was even a bit scared to love you. I did my best, because all children deserve at least one caring parent, but I still worried it wouldn’t be enough.”

He let the silence hang in the air.

“Do you know why I’m telling you this?” He finally asked.

I nodded to him. I understood.

Dad laughed. “I don’t believe you, you silly girl. Come give me a hug.”

I hugged him, and he held my tightly for a while. “Whatever may happen, Claire, I love you. I know I’m just some old man, but I truly do.” He let go, and stood up.

“You should head back to bed, now. I have to talk to Gregory.”

“Goodnight, Dad,” I whispered to him. I waved as I left the room, and returned to the hall.

I walked back to my room, still silent despite not trying. I had forgotten to look for Elisa when I returned to my room.

***

At another point in the night, I woke up again. Elisa was next to me again, breathing softly. I was shocked for a moment, remembering that I hadn’t looked for her, but I was glad that I found her anyway.

I closed my eyes again when I heard people speaking from outside.

“You think Richard really wants us to leave so suddenly?” One voice asked. It was either Ray or Spencer.

“He’s very angry with Pop. He shouted at him for being ‘so dense’, he said.” That was the other brother. I really didn’t know who was who.

“Still, I can’t believe he would just turn his brother away like that. I wouldn’t ever turn you away from my home.”

“Yeah, but we’ve lived in the same places for years,” The brothers laughed, and their voices faded down the hallway.

I looked over to Elisa. Her breaths hadn’t changed.

“I don’t want you to go,” I whispered. I scooted closer to her, and laid my head on her shoulder.

***

Sunlight leaked into my room from between my curtains. Well, only a little bit, as it was still the rainy season.

Elisa was still sleeping soundly. I got out of bed, got dressed, and entered the hallway.

I could tell that it was still early in the morning because the house was quiet and there weren’t many servants out and about.

Upon walking into the grand entryway, I saw Ray and Spencer tossing a ball back and forth between the two of them.

“So how much longer do you think we’ll be allowed to stay here?” Ray asked Spencer.

“Probably a day or two, honestly. Rich has been rather disagreeable about Pop’s employment. It’s a shame, but we’ll probably have to stay in a hotel for the rest of the week.” Spencer threw the ball back to Ray.

Ray caught the ball, and swiftly tossed it again. “Richard is an odd fellow. So anti-war, but also incredibly anti-japan.”

I began walking down the stairs. Spencer saw me first. “Ah. Claire. Good morning to you,” He said. He tossed the ball again.

“Good morning, Spencer. Good morning, Ray,” I replied.

“Good morning, Claire,” Ray replied. “Sleep well?”

“Well enough,” I said. “What about you?”

“We stayed up rather late last night. I’m a bit tired, but military discipline wouldn’t let me sleep through any part of the morning,” he said.

“Nor I,” said Spencer.

“Well, that’s a shame. Have either of you had breakfast yet?” I asked.

“Not yet,” Ray informed me. “Nothing had been prepared yet.”

“Maybe something is now. I’m heading to the kitchen,” I said.

“Tell us if you find anything,” Spencer said, before they returned to passing the ball.

Walking in the kitchen, I found some toast set up on a plate, but nothing else was ready. I could tell various things were being cooked, however.

“Sorry we don’t have much prepared right now, miss Claire,” Jerry, one of the butlers, said, “We didn’t expect anyone to be up so early after how late most everyone seemed to have stayed up last night.”

“It’s no problem, Jerry. It doesn’t help that it’s a Sunday and most of the staff is at church.”

“Ah, right. I was wondering why we were so understaffed today. Anyway, feel free to help yourself to what is prepared. I’ll find you a jar of marmalade as well.”

“Thank you,” I responded. I picked up the plate of toast, and took the jar of marmalade from Jerry. “I’m going to go share this with Spencer and Ray while you’re still cooking.”

“Fine by me. Good morning Claire.”

“Good morning, Jerry.”

Upon returning to the entrance, Spencer and Ray had sat down on the stairs next to each other.

“Breakfast isn’t ready, but I brought some toast and marmalade,” I said to them.

“Lovely!” Ray proclaimed. An echo rang through the house. “Right. Sorry.”

We sat down in a circle and shared the toast.

“So Claire,” Ray began, “What do you do for fun around here? Seems rather lonely. Do you ever have friends over or anything?”

“No,” I said. “Most of the time I just read books, go to lessons, and play outside.”

“My, you’re a trooper,” He said. “I would have just gotten bored and lost my mind at this point.”

“You already have,” Spencer said. They laughed.

“What do you boys usually do for fun?” I asked.

“Well, you saw us passing a ball earlier. When we’re here in Britain we play sports with anyone we can find. On the ships, though, we usually just play card games and talk with the other troops. The Japanese play mahjong more than our western card games, so we’ve learned how to play that, too.”

Around this time, Elisa appeared and joined us in eating toast.

“Good morning Elisa,” I greeted her.

“Good morning Claire. Brothers.”

The two boys returned her greeting as she joined our circle.

“This is a rather informal breakfast, isn’t it?” She asked us.

“Um… Yeah,” Spencer said.

“That’s tends to happen when a child brings a plate of toast and marmalade into a foyer,” Ray added.

“Is there not a breakfast ready elsewhere?” Elisa asked.

“Probably, but I was kind of enjoying this quiet sit down in the foyer,” Ray said.

“No harm in sitting a while longer. Maybe the rain will even subside for a few hours,” Spencer said.

“I doubt it,” I said. “The rain hardly ever goes away until summer time.”

“So you’re saying there’s a chance?” Spencer asked.

“When hell freezes over, you dote,” Ray replied, laughing.

“Still sounds like a chance to me,” Spencer said.

Once the plate of toast was empty, we all sat in silence for a few moments. “So do we get more toast or do we actually get breakfast from the dining room?” Ray asked.

“Come now, no need to be total slobs. We’ll go to the dining room. I’m certain more is ready by now.” Elisa stood up, and walked up the stairs and into a hallway. The rest of us watched her. A moment later, she peeked her head around the corner. “I don’t know where I’m going,” She called down.

I laughed, stood up, and called her back. “The dining room isn’t up there.”

I guided the three of them to the dining room. Once there, we found that the table had been completely set and was ready for us to eat. Jerry stepped in with a platter of glasses and a pitcher of orange juice.

He turned as we all walked in. “Ah, so you all decided to finally stop eating in the foyer.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “We didn’t want your hard work this morning to go to waste!” I chirped.

“Well, I appreciate that. You should teach your father those manners.” Jerry laughed. So did everyone else. I still wasn’t totally sure what was funny, but I laughed anyway.

“Speaking of which, has anyone seen Richard? Or Pop, for that matter,” Ray asked.

“I haven’t,” said Jerry.

“I haven’t, either,” said Elisa.

“I haven’t,” I said.

“I suppose we’ll just start without them,” Ray said.

With that, we sat and had breakfast, just us children. It was fun and ‘boisterous,’ a word I’m certain Elisa would have used.

***

Later in the day, Elisa and I were sitting in my room and reading books. I showed Elisa one of my favorites, and she picked out a book for me at random.

“So why exactly was Dorothy taken away by a tornado?” Elisa asked me. I put a bookmark in my book.

“So that she could be taken to the land of Oz.”

“But where is the land of Oz?” she asked.

“Well, it isn’t really in our world. Oz is a magical place.”

“So why is Dorothy there, but not anyone else?”

“Dorothy was the only one out when the tornado picked her up.”

“Oh. I guess that part makes sense. American books are weird.”

“You haven’t even read it all!” I proclaimed.

Elisa giggled. “Still weird.”

I laughed with her. “All books are weird then.”

Elisa laughed louder, and so did I, before we were suddenly silenced by the calamitous crash of a slammed door.

For a moment, it was deadly quiet.. Elisa stared intently at my door. Quickly, the patter of rain was unbearably loud on my window. The dim lighting of the room felt more apparent and oppressive than before. Elisa eyes were shaking, if I could believe my own eyes. The freckles on her face appeared to shrink. I could hear the sounds of her breaths through the rain, and then I could suddenly hear mine just as clearly.

I couldn’t bear it. “Elisa, what do you think it is?”

Elisa shook her head. “It was- it was probably nothing. Don’t worry.”

I was worried, though. Elisa was so scared for a few moments. There was something she knew that I didn’t, and I couldn’t stand it.

“I’m going to go investigate,” I told her.

“You really shouldn’t. It was probably just an accident.”

Ignoring Elisa, I hopped off of my bed and toward my door. “I’ll be back, Elisa.”

“Wait!” She called after me, but I had already gone into the hallway. Unfortunately, the hallway was still too quiet. Or maybe it was always this quiet, but right then it was a specific kind of quiet.

I didn’t know where the door slam came from, so I started to just walk down the hallway and figure it out later.

After I had gotten to the opposite side of the house, I heard Greg shouting in a room. “It doesn’t matter, damn it! This is my job, not yours! I asked for hospitality for a week, one week! And this is how you act! I haven’t done anything wrong!”

“You are actively communicating with our enemies!” Dad shouted back. The shouts were loud enough to hear through the wall, but not quite loud enough to echo through the house.

“I’m not communicating with enemies! I’m communicating with politicians who want this war ended just as badly as I do!”

“They’re lying! You might as well be talking to Hitler and taking bribes from the bastard!”

“They are not Hitler! Good god, man, listen to yourself! Are you going to just say that anyone who is living in a opposing country is under Hitler’s thumb? There are still people in Germany right now who disagree with the Nazi party!”

“The poor in Germany are not the same rich elitists you know in Japan!”

You’re a rich elitist here in Britain! What, just because you don’t live in Japan or Germany you’re suddenly the most correct? Have you ever heard of ambiguity?”

“Ambiguity has nothing to do with your communications with the enemy!”

“What, so does that make Britain the enemy now? They are the ones ordering me to communicate with Japan!”

Dad didn’t respond right away. I then heard Greg say something much quieter. Dad also said something quietly. Then, I barely heard Greg say one word: “Fine.”

I heard Greg start walking toward the door, and I quickly dived to the wall. Greg broke through the door, and began tearing down the hall. I watched as he swiftly moved away. Then, he turned a corner and was gone from my sight. I took a peek into the room he was in, and saw Dad sitting in a chair with his head in his hands. I didn’t understand their argument.

I knew I couldn’t risk being seen by Dad, so I walked around the house the other way. I passed through the halls, through the entrance room, and through some more halls before returning to my room.

Once inside, I noticed Elisa wasn’t there. I threw the covers off of my bed, to see if she was hiding there, but I found nothing. I turned around, and saw that Elisa’s bags were still in my room. I sighed in relief.

I hopped onto my bed, and looked at where Elisa left off in her book. However, when I opened the book, the bookmark fell out of the cover, onto my bed. I let out a huff, and put the bookmark back.

I sat in my room for another few minutes, waiting for Elisa to return. She didn’t.

“Maybe she went for lunch,” I told myself. Convinced, I went into the hallway and walked to the dining room again. Spencer and Ray were eating, but Elisa wasn’t there.

“Have either of you seen Elisa?” I asked them. They both turned to me and shook their heads.

“She came by earlier looking for you,” Spencer said.

“Where did she go?”

“Somewhere, I’m certain. Here, she’ll likely come back. Just have lunch with us.” Spencer motioned to the food on the table, and I felt obligated to sit.

“Don’t stress about us too much, Claire. We aren’t here for too long, you know,” Ray said. Spencer nodded. “Rather, just enjoy spending time with us while we’re here, instead of getting sad about us having to leave eventually. We tend to move around a lot, so that’s how we stay happy.”

“And you haven’t thought to question it?”

Elisa. I turned around to see her. She was staring intently into the dining room. “Have the two of you always just been so accepting of having to leave everything behind for months at a time, just to return home long enough to get attached again, only to have to abandon it again? Are you two telling me that you don’t think twice about what it means to live like this? You’re both doomed to live like Pop does, because that’s all that you’ve known. We don’t have a home. We have nowhere to stay. You just sit and let it happen?”

Ray rubbed his temples. Spencer spoke, “Elisa, it isn’t that bad. This is some people’s dream-”

“Well it isn’t mine!” Elisa shouted. The echo of her voice rippled through the home. That silence from a short while before had suddenly returned.

Elisa was panting. Her fists were clenched, and she was shaking. Her eyes looked moist. I slid out of my chair, and walked toward her. I took only two steps before Spencer spoke again.

“Elisa, this is how things are. You’ve known it for at least fourteen years. It’s not that bad.”

Elisa shook her head. “Of course you don’t understand.”

I gasped. Suddenly, Greg was behind her. Elisa turned to leave, and almost bumped into him.

“Elisa. Is this really what you think?”

Elisa’s palms were open and trembling at her sides. Then, she curled her fingers back into her palm. “Yes, Pop. That is exactly what I think. I have been dragged into a life of never knowing comfort, and this isn’t my choice. I hate it.”

Greg sighed. “You know, I’ve worked hard to keep you fed since your mother died. It’s incredibly unfair of you to accuse me of such things. Get out of my sight.” Greg walked into the dining room, and took the seat that I previously had been sitting in. I took a couple of plates off of the table, and followed Elisa out of the dining room

Outside, I found Jerry again. “Afternoon, Claire.”

“Afternoon, Jerry,” I briskly said, looking past him and keeping my eyes on Elisa.

“Let me help you with those,” He said. I handed him the plates. “Where to?”

“We’re following Elisa.” I started moving to follow her.

“Very well,” Jerry said, and he followed me too.

“Today has been a rather restless day, Claire. I hope you’re doing fine,” Jerry said as we walked.

“So do I,” I replied.

Jerry chuckled. “Witty. You seem to really like Elisa.”

“Yes,” I said.

“What do you intend to do when she leaves at the end of the week?” I don’t think Jerry was trying to be rude, but I didn’t appreciate how he was asking his questions.

“I don’t know, okay? I’ll figure it out when the time comes, okay?”

“Hmm. You are passionate, Claire. I’m glad to see it. Perhaps…”

“Perhaps what?” I demanded, my eyes still trained on Elisa.

“I was just thinking out loud. Ignore me.”

I openly took his invitation, and stopped listening as we moved down the hall. Eventually, Elisa entered my room. I followed her in, with Jerry in tow.

“Elisa,” I said. I didn’t say anything else. I was shocked to see her simply standing in place, still shaking in rage. Jerry set the plates down on the floor by the door, and then left.

“Elisa,” I said again.

Elisa placed her hands over her face, shook her head, then moved her hands to the side of her face. I shut the door behind me. “Elisa.”

“Claire. I don’t know what the fuck to do.”

I stood still. “Neither do I.”

Elisa stepped backward, until her back hit the wall. She slid down the wall until she was sitting, then started sobbing.

“Elisa- I-” I stepped towards her. I sighed, and sat next to her. I put my arm around her, and drew her closer to me. She accepted, and cried into my shoulder. I wrapped my other arm around her.

“Elisa. I won’t let them take you away.” I felt my own eyes getting moist. “Elisa. I love you.” I shook my head, but I still started crying. Arm in arm, Elisa and I shared our tears.

“What the fuck do we do?” She asked between ragged breaths. I shook my head against hers. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have any answers. I was only ten.

“Claire,” Elisa sniffed, “I’m going to miss you.”

“Don’t say that,” I replied, my face still buried in her hair. “Don’t say that.”

***

I woke up a few hours later, with no one near me. The moment I found Elisa gone again I panicked. I leapt up from where I was. Of the two plates, one was missing. I burst through my door, and ran down the halls. I can’t lose Elisa. I can’t lose Elisa.

My footsteps echoed until I had suddenly entered the grand entrance. Standing at the top of the stairs, I saw Dad standing alone.

“Dad!” I shouted. “Where is everyone?”

Without turning to look at me, he answered. “I sent them away. Greg and I just couldn’t see eye to eye. It’s a shame. I haven’t seen him in years.”

I felt tears well up in my eyes. I rubbed them, hoping to not cry. “What about everyone else?”

Dad sighed. “I couldn’t really send Greg away without his children. They went with him.”

I shook my head, and rubbed my eyes more. Yet, I couldn’t really stop myself from crying. I ran back into the hallway.

“Claire, wait!” Dad called to me. I didn’t respond.

I kept running to my room, as fast as I could. I charged through the door, and leapt onto my bed. I curled the blankets near my body, and cried into them. At some point, I looked up and saw Elisa’s bags still sitting in my room.

“She- She left everything…”

I sobbed. I had only known her for a couple of days, but I felt like I had moved on as a person so well.

Then, the voice of a girl broke the sounds of my cries. “Well now. What are you crying for?” I looked up.

“Elisa!”

I soared off the bed and into her arms. She spun me in a circle.

“I thought you left with your pop and brothers?” I sniffled, and wiped my eyes on my arm.

“Well, I was supposed to. But your dad offered me a position here, as something of a nanny for you. He’s making a contract for me, and he’ll have it ready at some point.”

I pressed my face into her shoulder. “Elisa…”

“I think good things are going to happen, Claire. I really do.”

Coincidence

2191 words. A very angry being wishes to summon the aid of a soft spoken demon

Mistake


I remained still, and listened very, very carefully. Many voices were speaking to me, and I had to carefully attune myself to them in order to hear all of them. I didn’t want a single voice to be left out as I communed with them.

“Furious.” “Cold. Scared.” “I just want to rest.” “Disappointed.” “But ultimately unsurprised.” “Upset.” “Sad.” “Angry.” “All of me craves revenge.” “I want vengeance.” “I want to teach a lesson.”

At that point, their emotional energies were starting to align together closer. They began to chant ‘revenge.’ as if it was the only thing that mattered to them. Of course, some voices refrained from chanting. More voices than I might have expected. Some of these poor souls didn’t want anger, or revenge. They craved peace, but I’m not sure of what kind of peace they craved. Or, at least, I wasn’t sure of how I was going to give them the peace they sought.

“Moniker!” I heard my chosen name called out. I attuned myself back to my plane and opened my eyes.

“What is it?” I cried in return. The voices swiftly retreated back to the places that they were, as if suddenly remembering I was in the room with them. I was something of an unwelcome visitor to most of the voices, and the few that didn’t care didn’t have the will to speak up. Or the strength. Some human concept of energy that doesn’t translate into my realm very well. Hm. Energy doesn’t quite translate either. I suppose the language I’m currently attuned to doesn’t have the words to describe this. A shame.

My apprentice, Torn, or Broken depending on how you interpret ven essence, resonated to me. “Moniker, an event is underway.”

“Hmph,” I sounded, “Rather unfortunate timing. I was convening with my souls. An interesting development had occurred, an infrequent one.”

“Terrible, Moniker. I hope this event gives you some insight for those souls.” Torn curtsied at me, and then led me to a portal to witness the event.

Once there, I witnessed two humans light a multitude of candles surrounding a rune.

“That’s the word they’ve chosen?” I scoffed.

“What’s wrong with that particular word?” Torn asked.

“It’s very poorly attuned to demonic energies. Some ancient humans believed that creating runes that forced us to exert ourselves in some way would give them an advantage over us. Honestly, though, it won’t give me any form in that realm. I doubt this event will be worth attending.” Despite saying that, I still stayed and watched. Sometimes humans surprised me.

“In human words, that rune means “gate,” correct?” Torn asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m not sure what a “gate” is,” Torn said.

“A gate is a type of portal humans use to pass between areas that are meant to only keep certain things out,” I explained. “Essentially, their rune would give me a tiny passage of entry. I would much prefer a larger one.”

“I have been attuning with the angry one closely. She seems to think it means portal.” Torn attuned confusion to me.

“Some humans use the word gate in place of portal. In this language, words are very interchangeable. There are a lot of words that are very similar in meaning and can be swapped between each other. They do not understand the permanence demons have. So while we need a portal to pass through safely, they believe a gate is the same thing.”

Torn’s confusion dissipated. “Human scholars are strange,” vi said.

Once all of the candles had been lit, the two conversed for a moment. Then, the angry one distributed tulip petals into the ring.

Torn spoke up before any of the petals had fallen. “I feel a resonance with these petals. May I answer their plea?”

I resonated an affirmation to Torn, and vi gave the petals a form befitting their request. They became small hard lumps of human teeth. They changed from one immutable form to another.

“Very good, Torn,” I resonated a stronger affirmation to vin. Vi took the resonance and attuned gratitude back to me.

The human threw another set of petals into the circle. This time they took the form of rust. Their form was much more mutable in this state, and it interested me that these petals would have such a different request.

“Those petals were very strange,” Torn said. “Their request was not what I expected.”

“I will attune with the next amount,” I told vin. Vi attuned acceptance to me. Perhaps satisfaction is more proper way to describe vel attunement.

I aligned my thoughts with the thoughts of the petals. Their request was very peculiar indeed. It was as if they wanted to scare the two humans in the room, but were disappointed at the lack of reaction to previous alignments. This time, they sought to truly unsettle the angry one. The other human was too aloof for them to truly scare away, but the angry one was unstable. I resonated the petals some raw emotion, and they took it to a level I didn’t imagine. They became a physical manifestation of the angry one’s memories. I witnessed entire moments and emotions appear and disappear within a flash, to instead take the form of only stagnant images. I thought little of those images, until the angry one’s attunements spiked. That one was very upset at seeing these images, and unable to attune a single emotion to express what was felt. The angry one instead attuned many conflicting emotions at once.

“The emotions that the angry one attuned are incredible,” Torn noticed

“That one has seen many things. We had better not underestimate,” I agreed.

Torn attuned concern to me. “You had better not underestimate.” They changed their attunement to resonance. I returned their resonance.

“I appreciate the gesture, but you will need that emotion much more than I will.” I stared at the two humans, keeping my attunements and resonances subdued.

The aloof one resonated concern to the angry one, but the angry one did not accept the resonance. Humans cannot return a resonance without accepting it first, so that resonance simply disappeared.

“Humans do not understand their emotional powers,” Torn said. “They are so willing to waste their gifts on each other, even if no one gains everything and the emotion simply fades from existence.”

“Humans are different from us. The way they produce emotion is alien to us. We will never be able to understand their existences.”

“I know, Moniker, but I still find myself very frustrated at the idea.” Torn attuned this frustration to me.

“That’s not unreasonable,” I assured him. I attuned myself closer with the angry one. “This one’s attunements definitely fall under my jurisdiction. Good. It’s much easier to deal with the humans myself than to alert a different demon.”

“The angry one does seem to be the one who wishes to attune with you. The other appears to only be there for the first,” Torn accurately noted.

“Why does the angry one have a knife?” I asked.

“They used the knife to etch the rune and the binding circle,” vi replied.

That made sense, but it wasn’t going to be enough for me to waste my energy and take passage to that realm.

Then the angry one pierced the other with the knife. The aloof one fell into the circle, and the angry one pushed the rest of that one into the circle.

Suddenly, passage felt more possible than it had only a moment ago. The angry one resonated even more emotions than before.

“Do you feel that resonance, Torn?” I asked.

“I do. What is its significance?”

“That one’s desires align with the desires of many of my souls. If that one tells me the desires truly do align with the other souls, I might grant the souls to that one. That one could make better use of their desires than I could. Prepare them for me, Torn. I will resonate to you very strongly if I have need of them,” I instructed vin.

“Understood.” Vi left to prepare what I had asked of vin.

I prepared myself to enter the human plane as well. I dimmed the lighting in the room in order to not overstimulate myself while I took the human’s form. Then, I moved the human’s body so that it would be standing when I took it. I focused my consciousness, and temporarily moved myself into the form that was currently unoccupied.

I opened my borrowed eyes, and stepped toward the angry one on borrowed feet. “So it’s you. I had heard about you.” I wasn’t sure how to relate attuning to this human, so I instead chose to express knowledge through the one sense humans and demons shared.

I discussed with the human for an amount of “time” before she finally chose to tell me her desire. “I want to make the world a better place for me. And for others like me. I don’t want us to have to live in fear anymore.”

“Interesting. And who are you, Portia? Who would you categorise as ‘like you?’” I asked in response. I could feel my face attune joy to the human. It seemed as if she would be the correct candidate to take the souls I had.

“I’m- I’m a lesbian. And the people who I’d say are like me are other queer people.” She attuned to me both anger and sadness. “We deserve better.”

She was exactly what I needed. I used my original essence to resonate back to torn. Vi would supply me the souls in only a few moments.

I stalled for “time,” since the human realm worked differently than mine, and took a payment of emotional objects from Portia. Her memories were very potent, and they came to me, leaving behind the empty photos behind. They were merely shells for these memories anyway.

We stood in silence for a few moments before I spoke up again. “Well, I need you to do one more thing for me to enact my end of the bargain.”

“What is it?” Portia asked.

“Give me your hands,” I responded. The dealing circle prevented me from transferring the souls to her without physical contact.

“Are you sure this is the best decision?” Torn asked me. “The amount of angry souls here may just override her. She’ll become a monster.

I attuned calm to Torn. “There are more than angry souls, Torn. They will keep her in balance.”

Torn attuned acceptance to me, and began to channel the souls to my borrowed form.

“Oh no, you aren’t fooling me,” Portia began. “I know how this works. I break the circle, you kill me, and then you kill everyone else in a mile radius. Not happening.”

“I have no intentions of killing you, Portia.” I needed her to agree to do this. I wasn’t sure how the souls would react if I returned them to where they were. “I will change the fiber of your being, yes, but I will not kill you. You will do that much more effectively than I could. Your form will be suited to the job.”

Portia didn’t trust me. I could understand why. Demons kept their existences largely hidden from humans for a reason, and she didn’t know very much about us.

“Portia, time is running thin. The candles won’t burn forever. Shall we start?” I reached a hand out to her. All of the souls were ready to be moved to her, and I was prepared to resonate energy to her to create a form more suited to carrying hundreds of souls.

Portia sighed. “I trust you.” While she said that, her attunement was that of resignment. She didn’t trust me; she just didn’t have any other choice. That was fine. I didn’t need her to trust me.

I took her hands and gave her all of the souls, as well as double the energy that those souls had, so that Portia would remain in charge of all of them. The death of the aloof one provided much of that energy, and her memories provided more than enough.

I let her go. Welcome to your new purpose. Welcome to your new life.”

“Nothing is happening,” Portia replied. She resonated desperation to me. “Not yet,” I said. I began to collect my payment, the photos. I had no need for their form, but Portia didn’t need to know that. “They’ll happen soon. Farewell, Portia. I look forward to our next meeting.” I transferred the photos back to my realm, in a form that would fit them better. Their previous forms burnt up and fell to the ground.

I returned my essence to my plane.

“I’ve lost contact with the angry one. How did it go?” Torn asked me.

“It went better than I ever expected. Portia is going to do wonderful things in her plane.” I resonated gratitude to Torn.

“That’s only a fraction of the emotion that Portia gave to me. One day, you will be ready to engage with humans and accept emotion yourself.”

“I will be patient, Moniker. There is no rush.”

A Promise

875 words. Two friends made a promise to each other- one that neither of them can keep

There were once two very close friends: Adah and Leah. Adah and Leah loved each other very much, and couldn’t bear the idea of losing one another. So, they both made the promise to each that if one of them were to ever die, they would tell the other what lays beyond.

Unfortunately, Adah was struck dead in a brutal car accident one summer afternoon. Leah heard the news, and was heartbroken. However, Leah knew her friend would return to her soon to tell her what lays beyond death, and assure her that they’d reunite.

Adah did find what lay beyond, too. When she awoke again after the accident, she found herself in a glowing land filled with peace. She was greeted by a comforting voice. Despite it not having a form, she could feel it holding her and making her comfortable.

“So this is what lays beyond,” Adah said. “I like it.”

The voice laughed in pure joy. “I am glad you find it comfortable, child,” it said.

Adah looked around, trying to find a way back to Earth. She did not find one. “Voice,” she asked, “How am I supposed to go back to Earth?”

The voice sighed. “Adah, you are not meant to return to Earth. Your body has perished, and now your soul is moving on. This is way things are, and the way they have always been.” Adah panicked at hearing that. “But Leah!” She begged.

The voice cocked its head- can voices do that? “Adah, what about Leah?” the voice asked. Adah looked down, as if hoping to avoid the gaze of the voice- can voices have eyes? “I t-told her,” Adah stutter, “I PROMISED her that I would tell her what lays beyond death!”

The voice considered what Adah was saying. “Well,” it began, “you can return to Earth. But if you do, you will not be allowed to come back here. You will be trapped there forever, and you will have to watch as Leah eventually dies and comes here herself- without you.” Adah thought about this carefully. The voice spoke to comfort her. “Leah will not be alone forever. She will come to new friends on Earth, and she will eventually be here to reunite with you, too.”

Adah nodded. “Leah won’t be alone without me forever. And she’ll be here too.”

Adah looked up, as if facing the voice. “Okay. I’ll come with you. I’m sure she’d rather I be happy here with you than alone on Earth after telling her what lays beyond. And so Adah died and went to what lays beyond, finding peace despite her short time on Earth…

Leah waited for months for Adah to return to her and tell her what lay beyond.

Leah went to Adah’s funeral, and felt despair. However, she reminded herself that Adah would come back to her soon and tell her what lay beyond, and remind her that she’d eventually be reunited with her friend. She cried, but she cried out of happiness for that knowledge. So she waited for Adah, every day. She would stay silent as much as she possibly could, in case Adah’s voice was quiet and Leah needed to hear her whispering in her ear. She was quiet, and waited for day after day, week after week, and month after month for her friend to speak.

Leah never heard Adah’s voice. Despite all of her waiting in silence, she never once heard Adah tell her about what lay beyond. Leah became more and more angry and bitter, day after day, week after week, month after month. Her friend never told her what lay beyond death. Leah became bitter. She was angry because there was nothing beyond death. Her friend died, and never came back to tell Leah what lay beyond death. Eventually, Leah would die too, and she would never reunite with her friend in whatever lay beyond death. Leah was lonely. Leah hated her loneliness, and hated finally knowing the truth. Leah knew she would die and be alone, and she hated that. She hated it hated it hated it hated it.

Eventually, however, she learned to live again and made a new friend, Maya.

Maya and Leah loved each other very much, and couldn’t bear the idea of losing one another. Maya asked Leah that if she were to ever die, that she’d come back and tell her what lay beyond, and that Maya would do the same too.

Leah felt tears well up in her eyes. “Maya, there’s nothing beyond death,” she said. “We’ll be friends with each other but only for as long as one of us lives. If I die, I can’t promise you that I’ll tell you what lay beyond. But if I ever die, please don’t be sad for me. Please go make a new friend and live.”

So Maya and Leah promised each other that if one of them died, they wouldn’t tell each other what lay beyond- for there was nothing. Instead, they promised each other that if one of them died, the other would not be sad and would keep living her life.

Leah hated knowing the truth, but she was glad she had finally found someone to share it with.

Riverside

244 words. A microfiction about two friends sitting by a river

We were sitting next to the river. The water was quietly rushing past. A light breeze caused the nearby trees to rustle. I let my bare feet soak in the water. My friend was throwing stones into the river, trying to make them skip.

“Hey, look, that one actually managed a little bounce! I saw it!” I encouraged.

“Yeah, just a little bit. There has to be something with my angle; I used to be really good at this.”

“I remember. It’s been years.”

We were both quiet for a short while. My friend threw a couple more stones into water, and none of them bounced off.

“Forget about it, I don’t care if they skip anymore. I’m done.” After saying that, my friend came and sat next to me. My friend’s feet weren’t put into the water.

“How’s your mom doing?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen her in a couple months. I thought she might swing by for my birthday, but no luck.” My friend picked up another stone and tossed it into the water.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Don’t be,” My friend replied. “It isn’t your fault. At least you care enough to ask.”

I looked down at the river and sighed.

“Hey,” My friend said. “Chin up.” My friend put his hand underneath my chin and lifted my face up. I turned my head to look at my friend. “After all, you and I are still here, right?”

434 Usher Lane, Appt. 6

2181 words. A reimagining of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”

As I stepped toward the apartment, I felt a very particular sense of sadness. It was a dilapidated and weary building, one that had seen the sorrows of a dozen years and never spoken of a single one of them. The rain gutters were falling off, a few of the windows were boarded up, and there was evidence of re-plastering in some places. There were 6 mailboxes out by the door, hanging on the wall. Apparently, anyway. Numbers 1 and 4 had fallen off, and it was clear no one was going to put them back on.

To make matters worse for this already wretched building, it was essentially isolated. Any other buildings that used to be nearby seemed to have been leveled, for something to be built in their places. Nothing was ever erected, and odds have it nothing ever will be. The closest building to this apartment is at least a block away. Why Roderick chose to keep living here despite how terrible the place is made no sense to me.

The porch of this particular building had two doors. One of those doors led into a small hallway, visible from a small window in the door, and the other led to a stairway that went up, also visible from a small window in the door. The hallway contained apartments 2, 4, and 6, leading me to believe apartments 1, 3, and 5 were upstairs. A cold breeze blew through my jacket, making it clear that I should head inside.

The small hallway was still chilly, but it at least protected me from the breeze, which was a gift. However, the air was musty and filled with dust, which couldn’t have been good for my lungs. Thus I elected to get into Rod’s home as quickly as possible.

I walked down the end of the hall to the door labelled 6. I knocked on the door and waited for Rod to answer. I held my jacket up to my face while I waited, to keep the dust out. However, after a couple minutes and two more knocks, there was no answer.

I went to the other doors and knocked on them, too, but they threw up dust as if protesting my hand rapping against them. Obviously no one had used those doors in a long while, and the rooms were unoccupied. I sighed behind my jacket, and returned to Rod’s door. I knocked on it once more, louder than before, and waited.

Moments later, Rod opened the door up.

“Ah, you’re here!” he exclaimed.

“I am,” I replied.

“Come in, come in,” he said. “God, it’s been too long since I’ve seen you. High school sure has been a long time ago, huh? Even college, as a matter of fact.”

Rod led me into his house. His front room was poorly adorned, filled only with a blue love seat and a small desk with an old computer and some other device I was unfamiliar with. It must have been providing him with internet. The desk had a wooden chair seated at it.

He walked into the kitchen, which was cleaner and better furnished than the rest of the home. For one thing, there was a dining table there with 3 chairs, matching that of the one by the desk, as well as a proper refrigerator, stove, oven, and various cupboards.

“Rod, what’s up with this apartment? It’s empty and abandoned except for you. I’m honestly surprised the place hasn’t been torn down yet,” I said.

“Take a seat,” Rod said, pulling a chair out for me. “And yeah, that’s true. I’m basically squatting here. The landlord died, and the city is still looking for his most recent relatives. Or were, anyway. It’s been 4 years and they haven’t found anyone, or they gave up and haven’t bothered the place. Either way, home sweet home. This place provides for all we need, free of charge. Electricity, water, and heat. The only thing I have to get myself is food and a stable internet connection. Food is fine, I just walk up the street with a shopping cart I keep hidden behind the apartment and head to the local superstore. There’s also a prescription place in there so that I can keep Maddy medicated.” Roderick paused and looked wistful. “Or, well, so I could keep Maddy medicated.”

Madeline was Roderick’s twin sister. They were only fraternal twins, so they didn’t look too similar, but they had always been by each other’s sides. Their family was very wealthy, and the two of them lived through all of high school without either parent after they died. Rather simply, they’ve been independent for basically all of their lives.

“What happened to Maddy?” I asked.

“She got sick,” Rod began. “She has some sort of heart condition. I can’t leave her alone for too long or she might do something drastic. You know what I mean.”

I shook my head. “I’ve never heard of a heart condition that would make someone,” I put up my hands to make air quotes, “‘do something drastic.’” I cocked my head at Rod. “Are you sure she isn’t just depressed? Or anxious? There are plenty of therapists she could talk to about this. Keeping her isolated in a place like this can’t be good for her.”

Rod shook his head, looking somber again. “No, she had a heart condition. She’s dead.”

“Oh,” I responded. We both sat in silence for a few moments, heads hung low. Eventually I spoke up again. “What should we do with her?”

Rod looked back up. “Well, I tried talking to her about a last will and testament, but all she ever told me was that she never wanted to go anywhere. Now that she’s dead, I have to interpret what that means myself, and I think she wants to be buried in this house. I prepared a place a little bit in the basement, but I’ll need your help actually putting her to rest.”

I stood up in indignation. “You want to bury your sister in this abandoned old apartment? No, she deserves a proper burial, or at least to be cremated. Maddy shouldn’t just be thrown into a basement and forgotten. She was a good girl, you know this.”

Rod sighed. “She told me what she wanted.”

“She’s mentally unwell, Roderick. You can’t just take her word like that.”

“You know the ill still have will. We’re obligated to fulfill her request, even if it doesn’t make sense.”

I stepped backward, once. “I’m not following through with this.”

Rod sighed. “You can either help me with this and stay the night, catch up with me a bit, or you can just go. I don’t care which you do. To be honest, I can bury her myself. I called you here because I’ve been feeling lonely.”

I clenched my fists and stared Rod down. He made no motion to move. I sighed and let go of my hands. “Fine, Rod. I’ll help you. It’s… unfortunate that this happened. I feel awful.”

Rod stood up and put his hand on my shoulder. “Me too. Hopefully things will get better once this is all said and down. I’ll probably leave after tonight, anyway. Too many painful memories in these halls.”

I nodded.

Rod walked further into the apartment, and I followed him. He led me into a bedroom, where his sister laid on her bed, over the blankets. She was utterly still, and her cheeks were still flush with blood.

“My. She died recently, hasn’t she?”

“Yes,” Rod answered. “I called you just after I heard her last breath. I cried for a good while too. My tears are dry now, though. I just want to see this through to the end.”

I nodded. We walked over to her, and I picked her up, cradling her in my arms. She was still warm, too.

“It’s unfortunate that death plays these tricks, isn’t it? She still feels so lively.”

Rod nodded vigorously. “If I hadn’t heard her stop breathing, I would have thought she was still alive. Death isn’t kind to us.”

Rod led me out of the bedroom and into a hallway. There were two other doors and stairway leading down. Rod went down the stairs, and I followed him. Downstairs, I saw a washing and drying machine, but not before I noticed a huge section of the wall had been pulled aside, revealing a hole behind it.

“You built Madeline a tomb,” I stated, aghast.

“Well, digging into the floor wasn’t going to work. At least this way I can seal the wall back up.” Rod pointed to a bucket of plaster he had next to the wall. “Just lean her into there, and then help me push the wall back.

I gently laid Maddy into the tomb. It felt as if she had sighed as I put her down. I shuddered at the thought. It must have been her body settling and releasing gasses from when she was alive.

I helped Roderick shove the wall back into the slot where it was meant to be. There were thin cracks on either side, and Rod took to filling them in with the plaster rather quickly.

“Plaster doesn’t seem like the right solution for this stony basement wall,” I said.

“Likely not,” Rod replied, “But it’s the best I’ve got. This place is abandoned anyway. I doubt anyone will notice or care.” Rod sniffled. “It’s what she wanted,” he finished.

He finished sealing up the wall, and kneeled in front of it for a while, silently. “I’m sorry, but could you give me a few moments alone?” He asked.

“Yes,” I replied. I walked back upstairs, and returned to sitting at the kitchen table. He returned after a few minutes as well.

“It’s going to be a night before I’ll be able to sleep again,” Rod said.

“Maybe we could pass the time watching a movie?” I suggest.

“I don’t know. I just feel awful. I don’t know if anything can really help me.”

“Let’s give it a shot anyway,” I said. I pulled out my phone and started looking through a couple apps for a suitable movie.

I found something. “Have you seen this movie?” I asked.

Rod shook his head. “I haven’t been watching many films.”

“Perfect,” I said. I turned the movie on and set my phone up so that we could watch it together.

Not even after the opening credits had finished did I hear a loud sound coming from downstairs. “Did you hear that?”

Rod chuckled to himself. “We made a mistake, friend.” He said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I’ve heard those pounds many times before.” Another pound. “She’s been pounding at the door of this place for months now, desperate to escape. She’s wanted out more than you or I could ever understand, but I was scared.” The pounds continued in earnest. “I didn’t want Her to leave me alone in this wretched place. You see, it wasn’t Her who held me here, but the other way around.” Every time he referred to her, I could feel some sort of intensity behind the words. “I gave Her pills to reduce Her will to fight me and to break out of here. I had been drugging Her to keep Her in a nearly infantile state so that She may never leave me, and now I’ve done something much worse. I’ve buried Her alive in that basement. If I couldn’t have Her, no one could. Now here we are, and She rattles in Her grave to escape.”

I heard one final, deafening pound from below. I stood up in shock. “You mean to tell me that you knew she wasn’t dead, and you had me bury her anyway?”

“She’ll be here any moment now,” he replied.

I picked up my phone and stepped away from him, and toward the exit. “You mean she’s-” I didn’t finish my thought, as she was standing in the doorway. Her clothing was bloodied and covered in stone and dust, as were her arms similarly bruised and bloodied. Stone jutted out of various wounds in her body, but she simply stared at us with an intensity I never knew nor could ever know. There were bags under her eyes and bruises on her nose and forehead that made me shiver in their utter grotesqueness.

I stumbled backward as Roderick laughed, his mind broken, and Madeline jumped atop of him and began to strangle him with her beaten and broken arms. His cackling was replaced by death rattles as she crushed his windpipe with her bare hands.

I turned heel and fled that building, plowing through doors and rushing back to my car.

I jammed my keys into the ignition and turned them. The car failed to start twice, during which I heard a scream so inhuman that I could never attempt to describe it again. On the third attempt, my car started and I sped away from there faster than I had ever driven before.