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Streetlamps in the Snow

Snowflakes flit in the wind and glimmer in the dim light of the lampposts. The snow falls in a steady stream of dancing fairy-flakes, and the wind bites and gnaws at Eric’s cheeks and ears. He pulls up the collar of his long, woolen overcoat and sticks his hands in his pockets. 

What a sudden change of weather! The morning was almost warm, and the sunshine played on his forehead as he walked to work. The evening is now black and dense with creamy, snow-filled clouds. He wishes for his hat, scarf and gloves, but can only bow his head to the wind, and trudge onwards. He only has a few more blocks to go before he reaches the warm comfort of home.

Ahead, a lamppost flickers, and Eric discerns an old man standing under it. He hunches in the way only an old man hunches, and his hip juts out sideways, though he gazes in Eric’s direction.

Eric approaches and prepares to nod a greeting, but the old man turns and, leaning on his cane, totters around the corner. Eric shrugs and slogs on through the fluttering snow. He reaches the corner and looks out for oncoming cars; the nearest lamppost flickers, and Eric sees the same man beneath it, gazing towards him.

Eric means to cross the street and not to turn the corner. But the man, dressed in a three-piece suit — coatless and hatless — seems to wait for him. Eric raises his arm to wave and bid the old man goodnight. He steps off the curb. His heart lurches when he slips, but regains his footing. The wind howls at Eric; the street lamps blow out and plunge Eric’s path into cold and speckled darkness. He turns towards the old man, still waiting beneath the only flickering lamp around the corner. His way blocked by black night, black pavement and black ice, Eric traipses towards the man, who turns and hobbles further down the street. 

The snowy darkness devours the man, but Eric hears the soft thud of the man’s cane moving away. Eric pauses beneath the now darkened lamppost as the light before the next corner flickers. The old man with the crooked hip pauses and turns towards him, waiting. Eric picks up the pace and reaches the corner just as the old man rounds it.

The street is dark, lit only by the lights streaming from one window. All houses are dark, and Eric reasons the inhabitants have not yet arrived from their workday.

The lonely lights in the window flicker, and Eric detects the old man standing beneath it. He crosses the street towards the house. As he approaches the front walkway, he hears a low moan. Eric glances at the old man beneath the window. The old man points towards the stoop.

Painful groans break the snowy silence as Eric reaches the lump sprawled upon the stoop. Eric gasps; the old man with the crooked hip and three-piece suit is lying supine on the icy steps. His cane is out of reach, and a full and knotted garbage bag clings to the skeleton bushes that line the stoop.

“Help,” the old man whimpers, “I fell.”

“Is anything broken?” Eric asks and fumbles for his phone.

“No, I don’t think so, but I cannot get up without my cane.”

Eric drapes the man’s arm around his shoulder, then slips his other arm around the man’s waist and pulls him up to standing. They limp through the open door, and Eric gently sits the man down on an old high-back chair.

“I was taking out the trash,” the man stammers as Eric wraps a blanket around the man’s shoulders, “thank goodness you came along. My neighbors won’t arrive until much later. Do you live nearby?”

Eric shakes his head, “This street is not on my way home.”

The old man’s kind eyes fill with gratitude as he gazes into Eric’s face, “Then, what brought you this way?” 

“You led me here. I followed you.”

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Granny’s Apple Pie

The highway stretched out in front of them as inky blobs of night fell over the horizon. The only light ahead was the soft blue glow of dusk.

Gloria sighed; Stuart’s stomach grumbled and sounded throughout the silent car.

“Sorry, I must’ve swallowed a wolf,” Stuart joked.

Gloria laughed, “I’m hungry too.”

“Let’s keep an eye out for someplace along the highway, we still have a couple of hours ahead of us.”

Gloria nodded and gazed out the window; nothing but flatland and a crackled highway like a long serpent snaking nowhere. She leaned forward and turned on the stereo. White noise hissed from the speakers, and Gloria turned the dial station by station, but found only radio static all the way.

She sat back and turned to Stuart, who stifled a yawn.

“Stu, I could drive for a while,” Gloria offered, but Stuart refused.

“Better keep your eye out for somewhere to eat,” he said. 

Glory leaned her cheek against the window as the first stars twinkled in the dark expanse overhead.

Stuart braked hard and turned on the blinker, signaling he meant to pull over, but pulled into a small dirt path leading towards a wooden cabin.

“I told you to keep a lookout, we almost missed it,” Stuart chided, though a joking smile peered from his lips.

As they neared the building, she noticed a glowing sign that read “EAT” in neon letters.

“I didn’t I didn’t even see it,” Gloria stammered.

“No worries,” Stuart said, “I only caught sight of it just in time. “

Stuart pulled up to the building and parked the car.

The cabin lights blazed in the moonless night with an inviting and warm glow. Gloria opened the door as Stuart walked around the car. He held the door open for her as she stepped out of it.

The scorching desert had cooled since the blazing sunset, and Gloria reached into the backseat for her denim jacket. She handed Stuart his own jacket, who took it and slung it over the crook of his arm. He closed the door and locked the car, then caught up to Gloria and put his arm around her. Together, they walked to the entrance. The smell of cooking food and the sound of mirth from within the building broke the desert silence.

“Stu, I wonder where the other cars are?”

Stuart glanced at their lone car in the parking lot, “Maybe they all parked around the back.”

Gloria shrugged. She was starving, and the diner’s lively hubbub beckoned her to enter.

Inside, the place buzzed with customers and waiters darted back and forth between the booths and tables. A waitress with a beaming smile greeted them and led them to a booth at the far corner of the room. Gloria preferred a different table, but there was no other vacancy. The waitress handed them the menus, introduced herself, and left them to decide.

Everything made Gloria’s mouth water, and Stuart declared as much. She settled for the chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes and creamed spinach; to hell with the low-calorie, low-fat diet. Stuart chose the livers and onions.

The meal passed in a delicious haze of pleasant gaiety; the diner’s atmosphere was like an eternal party.

As the waitress cleared the table, she asked if they wanted dessert.

“It’s Granny’s Apple Pie,” she said with an impish smile, “there’s no other like it. One bite and you’re hooked for life,”

Gloria and Stuart’s eyes met. Then Gloria cast her gaze around the room. Most customers were enjoying Granny’s Apple Pie, and Gloria’s mouth watered, but her stomach groaned, stuffed to the gills. 

“Glo? D’you want to split a slice?” Stuart gave her an encouraging smile. 

Gloria knew that smile. It said, “Go ahead honey, order it. I’ll only take the teeniest bite and let you stuff yourself with it until you roll out of here.” Gloria resented that smile and the thought of finishing the dessert by herself made her queasy.

“No, thanks,” she said to the waitress, “it sounds delicious, but I’m afraid we’re very satisfied.”

The waitress’ smile faded just a tad, but she nodded and said she would bring the check.

The cool night air stung their cheeks as they left the building.

“Why didn’t you order the apple pie,” Stuart asked as they headed towards the car.

“Because I know you, you’ll take one bite and leave me hanging.”

Stuart kept quiet, she knew him as well as he knew her, and he wasn’t poking that bear. He started the car. 

“Stu, where are all the cars?”

“What do you mean?”

“We were in there at least two hours, and no one else parked beside us,” Gloria wondered, “and there’s no road leading behind the building.”

“Huh, you’re right,” Stuart said, and put the car in reverse, “Come to think of it Glo, no one came or left but us.”

They gave each other bewildered glances; Stuart’s arm rested across Gloria’s headrest and the car hummed. Stuart shrugged and looked through the rear windshield as he backed out of the parking spot and turned towards the highway. Gloria gasped. He slammed on the brakes and she pointed towards the restaurant, but only the empty desert sprawled in its place. 

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A Morning Stroll

The peacock’s shrill cry sounded throughout the hacienda. It was now a luxury hotel and Eliza paced the cobblestone path through a soft mist hovering over the ground. The old stone wall rose beside her, and Eliza admired the green moss growing between the ancient stonework.

The peacock shrieked again and Eliza glimpsed the beautiful, iridescent turquoise tail atop the stone wall. The peacock jumped down from the wall and ambled along the path ahead of Eliza. She came to a small fork in the cobblestone path, paused for a moment, then followed the peacock as it faded into the mist, which was thickening like whipped cream as it rolled down from the mountain.

Tall trees lined the path and the Spanish moss clinging to the branches looked like witches flitting among the trees. Though spooky, the foggy silence comforted Eliza. She sauntered behind the peacock’s fading form.

A cool morning breeze blew through the mist, and Eliza pulled her cardigan tight across her chest. The mist closed around the peacock and Eliza lost sight of it, but discerned the clear click of its feet on the cobblestone. She guided herself by the tall bulk of the stone wall alongside her, and the protruding roots of the Spanish moss laden trees that lined the path. She paused and wondered whether to turn back, but the mist now engulfed her, so all she distinguished was the pathway ahead. As long as she followed the path, she reasoned, and kept the wall to her right, she had no chance of leaving the hacienda and losing her way at the foot of the mountain. The peacock cried, and Eliza’s apprehension lifted as she renewed her steps towards the sound.

Up ahead, in the misty silence, a dark mass formed, and as Eliza slowed her pace, a figure approached her. Out of the mist, a couple appeared, and Eliza perceived a young man in a three-piece suit and top hat, leading a young lady with a straw hat pinned to her low pompadour hairstyle. Her gloved fingers curled around the man’s elbow, and a small parasol hooked over her other arm. Her long dress shone in brilliant white, as did the man’s shirt underneath the black vest and coat. The man swung a cane with each step as they strolled towards Eliza. 

The woman gave Eliza a kind nod, and the man tipped his hat when they crossed paths.

Buenos días,” the woman smiled, and Eliza returned the greeting.

The peacock shrieked and startled Eliza, who whipped her head towards the sound. It perched atop the stone wall; sunbeams broke through and dissipated the milky mist. Eliza turned back towards the couple, but saw only the ancient path behind her. It occurred to her she never heard their footsteps, nor the thump-thump of the man’s cane as they strolled on the cobblestone.

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GOLDEN TAROT: Two of Wands

Mom Always Knew

It was during the Great Clean that Allison found the orb hidden in her late mother’s closet. A few months after their mother’s passing, the sisters — Allison, Alana, and Amina — met at their childhood home to clean it out and decide what to do with it. The twins — Allison and Alana—owned their own homes, and their much younger sister, Amina, rented an apartment. Her sisters had offered Amina the house, but Amina would not decide until they had assessed its condition.

With a mixture of grief and nostalgia, the sisters began clearing out the house. They spent most of the morning torn between laughter and tears as memories of Mom filled the kitchen.

“One thing I never understood,” began Alana, “was how she always knew what we were up to.”

Allison chuckled and nodded.

“Ugh, I hated that,” Amina said, “it’s like she had a crystal ball or something. I used to sneak around the corner of the house to the hose caddy because it was the only spot away from any windows and secluded from the neighbors. It was quiet there too.”

“Ha! You’re not the only one,” Allison smirked, “I had my first kiss at that spot.”

“It’s also where we plotted all our pranks with military precision,” Alana winked at Allison, who giggled, “and yet, Mom always knew. She sometimes let us get away with them, but she always knew.”

As the afternoon progressed, the sisters split up to clean out separate rooms. Allison entered Mom’s bedroom and opened the closet door. She heaved a sigh of relief when she realized Mom had accumulated few knick knacks over the years, but also felt a pang of guilt at the prospect of rifling through the one place in the house that had always been off limits: Mom’s closet. 

As she steadied herself for the task ahead, Allison glanced out the window and glimpsed Amina sneaking around the corner of the house, followed by her boyfriend Ennis. Allison scowled at the sight of Ennis. When the twins talked about Ennis, their identical faces twisted and scrunched into expressions of disgust, as if his name evoked a malodorous toilet. He was a charming sleaze, but a sleaze, and the twins hoped Amina would one day leave him. Allison suspected her sister was unhappy in the relationship, but Amina clammed up at all mention of Ennis. 

Mom would have known what to do, Allison thought, and tears sprang to her eyes. Allison wiped them away with the back of her hand and tackled the closet with a knot in her throat. 

The orb sat tucked behind a shoebox in the darkest corner of the closet. Kneeling, Allison turned it in her hands, wondering that Mom had concealed this cheap toy. She had never seen it, and thought perhaps it had been a present from Dad, who had died when Amina was still a child. It was a clear glass ball, but it was as light as plastic. It had no stand, no brand, no markings, and no dust. 

Allison shrugged and stood. In doing so, she gave the orb a brief shake. The orb began emitting rays of colored light onto the walls like a kaleidoscope. Fascinated, Allison gazed into the glass ball and watched as a multi-colored mist swirled within the orb. In the mist, two figures appeared, and as it dissipated, Allison discerned Amina and Ennis. Amina stood next to the hose caddy with her back against the wall, and Ennis was leaning towards her as if to kiss her.

Allison’s eyes sparkled with mirth when she realized this was happening in real time. But her naughty smile faded when she registered Amina’s crossed arms and her defensive pose.

“I told you never to leave me,” Ennis growled, and Allison heard every word in the glass orb.

“Please, just go away,” Amina bleated like a frightened lamb.

Allison turned to call her twin and realized the orb was projecting the scene on the walls and ceiling. 

In a flash, Ennis punched Amina, then grabbed her hair and slammed her against the hose caddy. She fell on her knees, but Ennis pulled and dragged her towards his car.

Allison dropped the orb; it never landed, but hovered above the carpeted floor, still bearing witness to Ennis’s abuse as Allison darted from the room. 

From the parlor, Alana watched Allison open the hall closet, grab Dad’s shotgun, and bolt from the house. She dropped her dust rag and followed her twin. When Alana rounded the corner, she saw Allison pointing the shotgun at Ennis while Amina kneeled on the ground, blood dripping from her lips and whimpering.

Alana opened her arms and Amina stumbled into them, while Allison stood between her sisters and Ennis, shotgun at the ready. Alana fumbled for her cellphone and called the police.

“She’s mine, and I’ll be back,” Ennis sneered as he tried to sidestep away from the gun. He bounced and jerked, trying to provoke Allison, who kept her gaze fixed and her arms steady. Dad had been an excellent shooting instructor.  

As the police officer cuffed Ennis’s hands behind his back, he glared at Allison and whispered, “You can’t watch her all the time.”

“Oh, yes I can,” Allison growled and gnashed her teeth, “I have a crystal ball.”

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Martin let out a snarl that was caught between a roar and a growl. The Wi-Fi had been screwy all evening, and he wanted to unwind by playing his favorite video game.

It was the latest installment of a popular RPG — role-playing game — set in ancient Greece. The game crashed and froze several times, and Martin, frustrated, tried once more before calling it a night. He turned off the console and checked the router (it seemed to work fine). He restarted it anyway, just in case…

Martin drummed his impatient fingers on the arms of his gamer’s chair as the game loaded. Outside, the wind howled and Martin felt a tinge of apprehension crawl up his spine. He choked it and forced it down with one dense gulp. Martin hated admitting that storms freaked him out. It wasn’t just childish; he felt canine too.

The storm was coming, and the wind ululated its dire warning. He hoped his game would keep the storm at bay, but it was loading at a snail’s pace.

“Yes!” Martin heaved a sigh of relief as the game asked him to choose a character.

Martin cupped the controller with both hands, his fingers embracing their best friend. A soft, delighted smile crept up his lips as the game’s music blasted from the home entertainment system.

His fingers moved the tiny joystick and pressed buttons as his character, a Greek oracle in golden armor, moved forward in a seamless stream of motion that contrasted with the staccato click-click of the controller.

His character arrived at a ravine where a bloody battled raged.

Martin bared his teeth, the thirst for pixellated blood triggering his adrenaline.

This was it, the ultimate battle, he only had to find the Nemesis and vanquish him. Then he would win the game. He would be the first to beat the game since its release.

The Greek Oracle obeyed all Martin’s orders and fought a deft and valiant battle. Fallen enemy after fallen enemy piled at his feet.

He came upon the hoplite phalanx, a wall of armored soldiers with tall shields protecting them and long spears pointing at the Greek Oracle, their faces obscured by the bronze helmets.

Martin smirked. He made it. He only needed to get past the phalanx and the Nemesis would appear.

Faster than he could say “abracadabra”, the Greek Oracle cast a spell to slow down the phalanx’s movements. He fought and jumped and slaughtered them. Game-blood filled the screen.

The phalanx retreated, and as the smoke from his myriad of fireballs cleared, the Greek Oracle stood mid-screen, ready to fight the looming figure that was forming in the background.

Dark, smoldering and menacing, the Nemesis advanced. Martin’s thoughts rushed through the arsenal of powers and spells at his command, formulating a battle plan.

The Nemesis raced a fiery bow and arrow. He pointed it at Martin’s character, the Greek Oracle, and before Martin wondered why there was no monologue, the Nemesis shot.

The storm raged into the morning. It was still sprinkling as a police officer knocked on Martin’s door.

“Mr. Ludo,” the officer called, “I’m here to do a wellness check. Are you in there?” 

He knocked again, but no answer. The officer glanced around and shrugged. He was about to leave when something caught his eye. He peeked through the living room window.

Martin sat on his gamer’s chair with his hands still clutching the controller. The officer gasped when he stepped sideways for a better look and saw the arrow buried in Martin’s chest.

The TV screen blared “Game Over”.

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Red Sand

The painting hung by itself in the gallery; the enormous canvas covered most of the back wall. When Daphne wandered in, she paused in front of it, and gave it a bored glance.

Abstract art never interested Daphne. She found no meaning to it. To her, it was just a bunch of colors, stains, blobs, and oodles of ego. But this painting seized her. It caught her in its grip, and while Daphne’s mind told her to move away, her body froze with her torso facing the painting while her feet turned sideways, as if unsure whether to stay or go.

Entranced, Daphne contemplated the painting. It was a blob of bright red, with black and blue lines running down it. The uneven lines streaked it with such violence it seemed as if a tiger had mauled the canvas. The red background looked like a bloodstain on the sand. Indeed, the artist had named it “Red Sand”. 

But Daphne saw a city street in a fiery sunset. The blue and black strikes that seared the sunset bled out of the picture and surrounded her. They grew straight and tall, flanking her on either side. Up and up they rose until they scraped the sky. The pavement stretching out in front of her shone with the metallic green of automobile oil. Cars honked in the distance, and Daphne wondered whether they honked beyond the gallery walls, or whether they honked in the painting. Wherever, traffic rushed all around her, but she saw none of it. The sky darkened above the sunset fire, and a chill crept up Daphne’s spine.

Footsteps clacked on the pavement behind her. She wanted to turn around and yank herself out of the painting, but she stood transfixed by the vibrant colors of the sunset and darkened skyscrapers on either side.

The footsteps approached. Daphne followed the click-clack of stiletto heels as they reached her, then walked around her on either side, like water separating around a stubborn rock and flowing back together afterwards. The footsteps overtook Daphne and continued down the oil-slicked pavement towards the sunset. She listened, still staring down the abstract alleyway and waiting to see their owner appear, but the footsteps paused for an instant, then picked up the pace and hurried away from her. A sense of impending danger rose from Daphne’s toes, like a menace careening towards her. The footsteps’ panicking clack-clack hurtled into the blazing sunset as inky darkness fell over the sky and the buildings no longer glowed in the gloaming. Now they were only darkened statues flanking her, like fallen angels guarding the threshold to Hell.

The footfalls faded away; then, a bloodcurdling scream lacerated the painted night and ripped her out of the picture.

Shaken, Daphne glanced around for the source of that heart-wrenching shriek, but the gallery was quiet, with no sound of a commotion anywhere.

“It’s a magnificent piece, its violence rips through you,” a voice wafted in from the doorway. 

Startled, Daphne whipped around towards it. The curator stood gazing at the painting. 

“Yes,” Daphne agreed. 

“You know, it was the artist’s last piece. He called it ‘Red Sand’ because it’s an abstract depiction of his wife’s death. Police found her murdered on a beach. It was a brutal crime—never solved—and the artist never recovered from the shock. He killed himself soon after finishing this painting.”

Daphne stared wide-eyed at the curator, then gazed back at the painting. 

“No,” Daphne said, “his wife didn’t die on a beach, they murdered her in a city alley.”

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The Dawning

The new smart speaker sat on the bookshelf; Melissa contemplated it with pleasure. A set of three, she placed the speakers around the house so they could communicate with one another and with the smart assistant on her cell phone. She placed one speaker on her nightstand, another in the kitchen, so it could read recipes to her, and the third on the bookshelf in the den.

When the budget allowed it, she often treated her three-hundred-year-old house to small bites of pleasurable modernity. The house was well worth it, though she scrimped and saved for the upkeep of the small New England saltbox, and the historic district’s regulations forbade her to alter its exterior and structure. She loved the layout and the coziness of the low-ceilinged rooms. Every evening, she enjoyed the soft light of the standing lamps as she closed the wooden shutters to the gloaming peeking in through the slats. 

The kitchen held stainless steel state-of-the-art appliances, though it was small under its gabled roof at the back of the house. The refrigerator, with its icemaker and double doors, stood by the threshold of the living room like a constable guarding culinary secrets. The far wall of the living room contained the all-important flat-screen OLED TV framed by a floor-to-ceiling console and bookshelf. A sofa-bed covered with plushy cushions faced it.
The central fireplace delighted Melissa on frosty nights when she saved herself paltry pennies by shutting off the air conditioning/heating system (the house’s newest addition) and watched the flames dance and crackle as they filled the entire house with their cozy, primeval warmth. Someone, throughout the house’s three centuries, had converted one half of the sitting parlor into a modern bathroom, while the half nearest the front door was now a mud room. 

The den faced the street, and here, Melissa placed her desk with the latest, fastest computer sitting atop it, and the ergonomic chair before it. A small bookcase stood across the desk, beside the window, where the new smart speaker—a petite round bulb with a powerful sound and a blue orb of electronic light in its display—sat waiting, like a genie in a bottle, for her command. 

Melissa’s favorite room was her tiny bedroom with its slanted ceiling. The original house had two small attic bedrooms, but during its history, a pragmatic owner had converted the smaller of the two into an ample, full-sized bathroom. The oldest of six children, she had always dreamed of turning her parents’ attic into her own private bedroom, but Melissa had left home before her parents had the means to remodel it. Now, she was living her dream, a small, cozy house, with an attic bedroom, all to herself. No squealing, no traipsing, no banging, just her and the little modern commodities that brought the world into the house, yet kept it at bay. 

She spent the evening testing and configuring the system, so all the features it promised worked in a seamless stream of trailblazing technology. Satisfied, Melissa asked the bedroom speaker to play soft music as she woke her e-reader; the blue orb pulsed to the beat of the comforting neutral voice of the smart assistant as it replied. Night fell around her, and the blue cold of spring seeped in around the shutters. Melissa set her e-reader on the nightstand, shuffled under the covers, then asked the speaker to turn off the lights and stop playing the music in half an hour, and went to sleep.

Something woke Melissa; she opened her eyes and got her bearings.

Soft daybreak poured around the closed shutters, and the room filled with the spring chill of April. She rolled over and listened for the sounds of the modern world, but heard neither passing cars nor the distant roar of the highway. Not even the soft thud of the icemaker releasing ice.

Melissa yawned, sleep had crept away from her like a thief in the night, and there was no hope of its return.

“What time is it?” She asked the smart assistant.

The blue orb pulsed, but she received no reply.

Melissa frowned. She stretched her legs and was about to sit up when the distant sound of clopping hooves thudded through the room. Melissa deduced someone was horseback riding. She listened, the hoofbeats paused. A faraway knock on a door followed, and the hoofbeats resumed. The pattern repeated, only louder, as if nearer, and this time the chilly April breeze carried the murmur of apprehensive voices. 

Melissa sat up in bed, her heart thudding, alarmed by the sense of secretive urgency spilling through the wooden shutters. She turned on the light and opened the shutters, but only her car sat parked in its driveway. The neighbor’s house was still dark.

Melissa slipped into her plush slippers and padded downstairs to the front of the house. In the den, she glanced out of the window, but saw no sign of movement. The neighbors’ cars remained parked as they had been the night before, and no horse and rider glimmered in the early dawn. 

The hooves approached, clanging through the room, and the horse neighed and panted. The noise was so near she should have seen the horse and rider out of her window, but there was no one. She kept her eyes glued to the street beyond the window. 

Melissa jumped at the sound of a knock on her door; no one stood on the stoop. 

 “The Regulars are coming!” A male voice whispered through the threshold, and sent chills crawling up her spine. 

Then she heard footsteps upstairs, as if someone had roused themselves from her bed. Melissa stood frozen by the window, as the hairs on her nape stood on end.

Now, the thud of heavy boots came trampling down the stairs. Huffing and groaning, the footfalls reached the door and turned the inner lock. Melissa’s gaze turned to the front door as it remained closed, while the sound of it creaking open filled the room.

“Ready thyself! The Regulars are coming!” The voice spoke; Melissa’s heart jumped to her throat, choking her, then fell to her feet.

She glanced around her; the caller seemed to speak beside her, as if the horse and rider were in the room. But only her modern desk with its big computer display stared back at her.

Swift footfalls surrounded her, and doors creaked and whooshed open as people awoke to the midnight ride. Yet, beyond the window, nothing stirred. Melissa cast her frantic gaze over the room as the horse and rider melted into the hurried call to arms of men and the anguished cries of women that enveloped her in a sea of misty sound.

Her eyes landed on the smart speaker sitting innocently on the shelf; its indicator light waning and waxing to the rhythm of the dawning revolution. 

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The Little Painted Cabinet

The little painted cabinet stood in the library of Lulu’s grandmother’s house since time immemorial. Lulu always loved gazing at its wooden door painted with owls perched on twisting branches. She had not seen that cabinet since her early teens, when her parents fought with her uncle in an irrevocable sundering of the family. 

Then Nanna died, and her lawyers contacted Lulu to claim her inheritance: the house. For her uncle, that fly in the ointment caused even more friction and resentment towards her.

She walked through the front door she had not entered since childhood; it was no surprise to find the house empty. She imagined how her relatives, after Nanna’s funeral, which Lulu left in a hurry to attend her college graduation ceremony, rushed to the house and emptied it.

Lulu took a deep breath and told herself she did not care. They did not attend her parents’ funerals three years ago, so why bother now? She gazed around the old house with a surveying eye, and looking forward to a future in that house. Her parents died when she was nineteen years old, and she gave thanks every day that no authority had forced her to live with her aunt and uncle and her horrible cousins. They caused eternal discord, and Lulu was glad to see the back of them. 

She always missed Nanna, of course, but her parents moved too far away for frequent visits, and Lulu’s college increased the distance. Yet a phone call every week and in the wee hours of the night, when no other relative could snoop, had strengthened their spiritual bond.
After the lawyers called, Lulu plunged down on the only chair of her studio apartment, her hobbit hole as she called it, and breathed a sigh of relief. She hoped to never pay rent again; money was tight, and the rent payments of her tiny and shabby apartment gobbled it up month after month. 

Lulu wandered from empty room to empty room. The house needed little repairs, Nanna had done her best to keep it up, and, doubtless, her cheapskate uncle had coughed up paltry moolah for its maintenance while hoping to inherit it. Well, that plan backfired on him when Nanna, being of sound mind, left the house to Lulu.

As Lulu stepped into the library, it surprised her to see the little painted cabinet in its corner.

“Why didn’t they take it?” She mumbled.

Nanna’s last will and testament stated the property, its building and grounds, belonged to Lulu, but it did not specify ownership of its contents. Lulu knew she could not contest what amounted to robbery — they took everything, even the cleaning supplies. Yet, the little painted cabinet, with its white and red owls perched upon their branches, remained.

Lulu kneeled in front of it — it was only waist high — and contemplated the figures she had not seen in a decade and change.

Depicted on the doors, the tree with the owls covered the foreground, but behind it, Lulu noticed a tiny cave on a faraway mountain from which two small red dots, like eyes, shone through its darkness. Lulu frowned; she did not recall that tiny detail, but then again, too many years passed since she gazed upon it. Arabic script crawled and sauntered around the picture, enclosing it in a golden border of elegant waves and dots. 

Lulu clasped her fingers around the tiny golden knob, and tried to open the cabinet, but the door did not budge. She clicked her tongue and searched for a lock. Bewildered, Lulu ran her hands around the cabinet, but found no lock, button or mechanism that would open the cabinet door.

Tired of kneeling, she sat down on the floor and thought. She searched her memory, but had no recollection of ever seeing the cabinet open.

“It must be worth a few hundred dollars. It’s in excellent condition and Nanna said her grandfather brought it from his village in Syria. It’s an antique now, why did they leave it?”

Lulu ran her finger over the Arabic inscription.

The family lost most of the Arabic language over the generations (only the curses and terms of endearment remained), but Lulu recalled Nanna’s voice, the last member of the family with a slight accent, telling her that a djinn lived in the cabinet. Nonsense, her dad had said, and all fantasies had crumbled at the word.

Lulu stood up and tried to move the cabinet, but it was heavy, and seemed bolted to the floor. She shrugged; both pleased and intrigued that her horrible relatives left the cabinet behind them.

She finished her tour of the property, then spent the day carrying her few belongings from her rented U-Haul into the house. Her things seemed small in the vaulted rooms, and the house was bare, but she could afford no more.

Unable to haul her mattress up the imposing marble stairs, she set up her bedroom in the library, with the mattress placed upon the hard floor, in front of the little painted cabinet and its owls.

That night, a soft calm settled over her, and a voice in her mind wondered why the crickets stopped chirping. Lulu lay on her side and gazed at the owls on their branches. Moonlight seeped in through the window, and the owls took on a mysterious glimmer. They seemed to come alive, and Lulu imagined them taking flight and soaring through the shimmering streets of a Syrian village, dusky in the blue-gray light of gloaming. A young boy with dark hair and Lulu’s deep black eyes stood in the street with his arm outstretched as the owls alighted on it. 

A soft red glow glimmered in the tiny gap between the cabinet door and the frame. It intensified as red smoke spilled onto the floor. Lulu reached out as if to touch it, and the red fireless smoke enveloped her. She smiled, for she felt no fear, only a sense of floating tranquility. Memories she never lived blossomed in her mind as the red smoke permeated the room and Lulu’s conscience opened to a wonderful new reality. A reality she always wished for, and always repressed. ‘Nonsense’ now became a nonsense word as magic and logic morphed into one meaning, one possibility, one universe. 

The red smoke caressed her cheek; a paternal gesture she had missed these past years. 

Its deep voice whispered in Arabic, and she understood every word, “Your grandmother entrusted you to me. I shall accompany and protect you always.”

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Enid sat on the back porch overlooking her backyard and the meadow beyond the wrought-iron fence. For a moment, she recalled the disagreement over the fence when they built the house decades ago. Cecil wanted a tall wooden fence because it was affordable, but Enid insisted on the wrought-iron bars that allowed the view into the meadow. Cecil begrudgingly relented, and afterwards used her extravagance to penny-pinch their budget at will, but Enid regretted nothing.

Over the years, she delighted in the comings and goings of the forest and footpath that surrounded the meadow. Even Cecil stopped complaining about the extra expense, as he also enjoyed watching the deer sprint out of the forest and feed on the tall grass. Hikers often walked the narrow footpath, and the couple loved exchanging greetings and chit-chatting with them.

Enid reflected on the years spent in that house, as the light breeze shuddered the tingling wind chimes that hung on the twisted cedar whose branches reached over the wrought-iron fence like tentacles feeling their way towards freedom. 

Three children were born in the house, and two left home long ago to squabble with their own spouses over their own fences. Andrew, the third and youngest, died on the couch when the weak heart that plagued him throughout his twelve short years stopped forever. Tears sprung to Enid’s eyes at the thought of Andy, but the pain which had been so searing and raw for years had now ebbed to a dull pinch. Also, two dogs, a cat, and several pet birds and hamsters lay buried in the backyard.

“How short their lives compared to ours,” she mumbled, and sipped her fresh-squeezed lemonade. She gazed at the old tree, and its branches cracked in the breeze as if saying, “How short your life compared to mine.”

Cecil opened the back door, and panting and squeaking with old age, took a seat beside her. He poured himself a glass of lemonade from the pitcher Enid had set on the mosaic bistro table.

The wind picked up and ruffled the leaves. The wind chimes jangled, and the breeze rippled wavelike through the tall grass on the meadow. 

Enid shivered, “Oof, it’s getting cooler.”

Cecil smiled and sipped his lemonade, transfixed by the rustling grass.

A cardinal perched itself on the fence; a red spot on a canvas of blue and green. Another cardinal landed on the birdbath that sat in the cedar’s shade.

“Huh,” Cecil huffed, “do you remember all the cardinals we saw the month Andy died?”

“Oh yes,” Enid replied, “we counted at least fifteen!”

“Well, it might’ve been the same birds over and over, but yes, I recall at least fifteen sightings.”

“Andy loved cardinals,” Enid stated, not expecting a reply from Cecil, whose placid gaze wandered over the meadow.

The wind whooshed again, the branches on the cedar crackled, and the wind-waves undulated through the tall grass. A third cardinal alighted on the fence, then a fourth chirped from the tree. Enid and Cecil drank their lemonade. She stole a glance at her husband and noticed his misty eyes lost in their faraway gaze. The soft scent of jasmine meandered through the yard, like memories floating through time.

A sense of calm and love and tranquility settled over the couple. Though neither spoke, they shared this peace. Serene smiles glimmered on their wrinkled lips as the cardinals splashed about in the birdbath.

The wind blew, and the chimes pealed. The branches creaked; the birds chirped. The grass swooshed yet again, and a fifth cardinal appeared. It alighted on the jasmine trellis crawling up the porch column. It faced the couple and chirruped at them. Then it flew away as the others scattered.

Cecil beamed, “Andy says hi.”

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THE GODDESS TAROT: XIII Transformation – Ukemochi


The new girl sat next to Cassie and smiled at her. Cassie glanced around and returned a feeble smile. No one ever sat next to Cassie during lunch, and she felt ill at ease. Before meeting Adrian, she spent her lunches in solitude, often within earshot of the other girls, who laughed and gossiped about her. Mom always said Cassie had remarkable senses; they were keen, to the point of being supernatural. Little had Mom known…

Nowadays, she often jumped to a meeting place behind the high school gym and had lunch with Adrian. But today, he had an exam. Cassie wished he were here. 

The new girl was beautiful and chic, and Cassie noticed how Becky and her friends had taken to her the moment she stepped into the classroom. Cassie suspected she wanted to gather information and gossip about her with the other girls. She disliked the way the new girl fixed her gaze on her. It made her uncomfortable.

“Hi,” the new girl said, “you’re Cassie, right?”

She nodded. 

Cassie gazed into those icy blue eyes and shivered. She wanted to say nothing more. In fact, the thump, thump of her heart told her to beware. What was it about those eyes? She has seen them somewhere…

“So what’s up?” The new girl tried to make idle talk. 

Cassie wondered why this girl wanted to talk to her, of all people, but shrugged and unwrapped her sandwich, taking a big bite.

The new girl gave her a quizzical look, then gathered up her meal.

“Well, see ya,” she said, and walked towards the building.

Cassie gazed after her, bewildered. Ethur came to life and kicked at Cassie’s bellybutton. She had tucked him under her T-shirt the moment that strange girl laid eyes on her. She squeezed Ethur beneath the fabric and whispered soothing words. 

Cassie finished her sandwich and crumpled up the plastic wrap. She stood, marched to the trashcan, and threw it away. She then hurried inside the building. She would hide in the bathroom stall, and jump to her favorite place, the Old Cemetery. There, she would steady her nerves, and gauge her unease and Ethur’s alarm.

As she entered the corner stall and closed its door, she heard the bathroom door open and footsteps approach. Cassie slowly slid the lock into place. Something was wrong. Her whole body shook, and her ears rang with a tinnitus so clear and high-pitched it alarmed her.

Cassie held her breath and risked a peek through the gap between the door and the stall separator.

The new girl stood before the mirror. A dense black cloud fogged her reflection. The new girl ran her hands across her face, and Cassie watched, amazed at how the young, beautiful girl morphed into an old hag. Only her eyes, those icy blue eyes, remained the same.

“She’ll be a hard nut to crack,” the hag spoke into the mirror.

Out of the black cloud in the glass, a figure appeared.

Cassie almost screamed, but she stifled a gasp. She pressed one hand to her mouth, the other squeezed Ethur at her bellybutton.

The figure in the mirror cackled. He wore a top hat, and his icy blue eyes glinted with malice. The new girl knew the Ugly Man in the Mist! Since the first time she saw him, his hellish countenance had been giving her nightmares.

“You’ll have to try harder, Mother,” the Ugly Man hissed, “you can’t let someone like her get away.”

The old hag spat at the mirror, “Don’t you give me lip!”

The Ugly Man’s expression went from smug to chagrined to scared and back to smug in an instant, but Cassie caught the changes, and her own fear increased tenfold.

“We’ll get Cassie,” the old woman hissed.

Cassie gasped. 

The old woman whipped around and growled. She banged open all the stalls and found no one.