Second Chances

The sun beamed high in the sky when Miss Ann Thrope stepped out the front door. It glared at her; her eyes stung with its accusing rays and she closed them to keep the bright, white light at bay. It was just another reminder of the gloom which reigned inside her house. Miss Ann Thrope took a few moments to adjust to the light. She felt the sunbeams on her skin and they burned her.

“You don’t visit us anymore,” they said, “such fun we had together, but you stopped coming out to play.”

But it wasn’t like that, Miss Ann Thrope wanted to tell the sun.

She had always loved the beams on her skin and the warmth upon her flesh. She had always enjoyed the colors that shone with blinding intensity in the sun. But then, her friend, the sun, had witnessed the tragedy that darkened her life forever.

Miss Ann Thrope sat down on the dusty stoop—it was hard to break the habit of sitting. She marveled at how easily her knees bent and her hips hinged. For so long, the bandaged lumps of ulcerated flesh and the painful, crooked hip had imprisoned her in a life marred by damage and injury. Miss Ann Thrope winced at the agonizing nights spent lying in bed when the pain seared through her whole body and shredded her soul to strips.

Now, she glanced over the forlorn front yard with its overgrown weeds and brambles and rusty fence. Was this the yard where she spent so many summers playing and running and jumping?

“I did not want to leave you!” Miss Ann Thrope blinked at the yellow fireball in the sky.
A lump formed in her throat and tears sprung to her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. Why was she crying? From where did these tears come? Why now, after so many years? She should rejoice! No one gets a second chance at life, not so many decades afterwards. Yet, she sobbed. 

“You know what happened!” She cried, “You saw it all from up there!”

That day still whirled and swam and slithered in her brain. The sun was blinding then, too. It watched as she got in that sparkling red car, with Florian and his bright yellow locks. She thought she was dreaming, but dream and reality collided just around the bend in a metal-smelting flash, though not from the sun. Years of agony and pain and helplessness followed.

“Did you send him? Did you send the Angel?” She asked her old friend.

But the bright star only twinkled with a thousand beams.

Miss Ann Thrope stretched her legs out before her and marveled at their newness. She still felt as if all was unreal, as if she were in a very vivid, very welcome dream. She twirled her straight, rejuvenated fingers, and touched her new, wrinkle-free face. The girl she had been was back and had her life ahead of her. But what now?

Miss Ann Thrope took a deep breath and enjoyed the scented fresh air. It was something she lacked for years when she could no longer open the windows. Here she was, new as the dawn, yet as old as time.

All her family, friends and acquaintances had died long ago. They lived full lives, absent injury, while she wasted away in the gloom and mustiness of her childhood home knitting by her window, until she could not no longer open it.

Sunrays beat upon her skin, and a crow cawed from the twisted and ancient tree that flanked the house.

“Get up,” it squawked, “wipe your tears and leave the past behind you.”

“You are right,” Miss Ann Thrope replied, and cleaned her cheeks with her smooth, alabaster hands. 

But what does one do with second chances? 

“One puts one foot in front of the other, that’s what!”

Miss Ann Thrope stood up on those long, beautiful young-girl legs and walked down the cracked and uneven driveway. She glanced around the altered street with its myriad of utility poles and cables. Strange blue lights blinked from almost every window, and cars zoomed past her at breakneck speeds. Time had passed by her in the dismal house. Her knees quivered at the velocity of this new life, and she almost ran back inside her sheltered home. But the sun beat down on her, and the crow cawed from the tree, and she stood and stared. 

Perhaps her old friend, Armistice, was still alive. He would know what to do. He always knew what to do.

OLD ENGLISH TAROT: Three of Swords


Ivy crept up the ancient and massive stone wall. Bridget stood on tiptoe and stretched her neck, hoping to see beyond the wall, but the tangle of leaves and branches obscured all glimpses of what lay beyond it.

She had inherited this vast property from a distant, unknown relative, with no other explanation than a map to its location and the old, leaf-shaped iron key. Now, Bridget had a choice: to sell it for a song, or to repair it.

But the ivy and honeysuckle and bougainvilleas crawled and climbed and slithered in a mess of thorns and leaves, and Bridget saw no hope of gaining access to the ramshackle structure.

“It’s like The Secret Garden,” Bridget mumbled, and pondered whether to climb a tree.

She jangled the key in her hand; the gate was so rusty and overgrown with vine she doubted the lock would work. She tried anyway; she had not come all this way just to peek over the wall. With great effort, the key turned, and the door creaked open. It swung with the high-pitched squeak of rusty hinges, but snagged on the overgrown weeds that spidered over the ground.

Bridget squeezed through the gate; the sight beyond it caught her breath. She had entered a world of green. Every branch and leaf glowed with a thousand shades of green. Green, up and down and left and right. She rubbed her eyes, and little green sparks flashed under her eyelids.

Yards ahead, she spotted a stone building covered with moss and crawling with bindweed. It was a short one-story home with a series of stocky arches lining a desolate veranda over which twining plants hung like blooming tendrils. Three turrets stood at three corners and jutted out like three swords ensnared in the vines. The fourth turret had crumbled long ago.

As her eyes adjusted to the blinding green light, she noted pinpricks of reds, yellows, whites, purples and blues, and realized the entire property was in full bloom, in October!

A small twitching under an arch caught her sight. A tiny light seemed to wink at her. Something rustled in the trees, and out of the corner of her eye, Bridget saw movement.

She turned in time to glimpse a figure disappear into the matted forest behind the house.

“Wait!” She called and hurried after it.

It dashed and darted between the trees and ivy, and Bridget had difficulty following it. She stopped at the end of the wall. The figure had disappeared, and she strained her eyes, scanning the thick, overgrown orchard for it.

“You are not like the others,” a voice whispered in her ear.

She whipped around, but glimpsed only a green shadow glide behind a flourishing tree.

“What do you mean? Who are you?”

“I am your most ancient ancestor. Your forefathers hated their people, but you respect us. You respect all living things.”

“Who is us? I don’t understand.”

“You come from a long line of sprites — people of nature, beings of light. Some humans call us fairies, others leprechauns, some know us as nymphs, others as devas. We are wood people, forest people. Your human forebears hated us, hunted us, felled our homes. They turned away from us, except for one. This home is our last sanctuary.”

As the voice spoke, Bridget noticed watchful eyes on her peering out from among the branches and leaves and multicolored blossoms.

“How came you here, child?” Another voice spoke from a sprawling rosebush.

“I-I inherited this property from a distant relative when she died. I never knew her.”

“Ah, so the age of Ostara has ended. The age of Brighid begins.” 

“You are welcome here… You need not join us, but please do not take our home,” someone whispered from behind an oak.

“Yes, let us be,” a fourth voice spoke from the jasmine creeping up the turret, “if you wish to leave.”

Bridget glanced at the old building, and for the first time realized the roof had caved in, and all that remained were the arches, the veranda, and the three stone turrets. 

Hundreds of expectant eyes held her in place, and through the flora, Bridget almost glimpsed the creatures’ various shapes, all so elusive they might have been shadows. She sensed their pleas, their dread, and the hope their idyll might last a while longer.

Bridget said nothing, but made her way back to the half-opened the gate. All the while, a shadowy, tall, man-like figure followed beside her, hidden among the brambles.

She passed through the gate and shut it behind her. A man came into full view between the wrought-iron bars and bindweed. He had long, green, straw-like hair and a long copious green beard. His eyes shone green and his skin was rugged, like bark. His expression showed hope and fear.

Bridget whispered, “There’s nothing of monetary value here.”

She winked, and The Green Man’s rough lips broke into a wide smile, revealing birch-white teeth.

BRUEGEL TAROT: 8 of Pentacles


The painting captivated Frieda. It hung in the library of her grandparents’ castle, which had been in the family for generations. The painting was an allusion to her family’s tradesman past and depicted her 17th century ancestors, though her family line extended a hundred years before it. Instead of portraying her forebears in stiff poses and ostentatious clothing, it depicted them in a marketplace, selling their wares at various stalls. Much like Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, which led to the suspicion Rembrandt himself might have been the artist. 

“There is no evidence of that,” Opa said, giving her a conspiratorial wink, “but legend has it, it was our predecessor Johannes, an accomplished artist, who painted it.”

“So how come no one knows?” Frieda asked as she and Opa gazed at the painting.

“Because he had already vanished. No one knows who painted it.”

Frieda gave Opa a suspicious glance. He had a penchant for tall tales and unlikely yarns; he once told her their ancestors had slain a dragon and kept the treasure it had been guarding. Frieda knew he was repeating the gist of the Nibelungenlied. 

“Sure, Opa,” Frieda said and suppressed an exasperated eye-roll.

“No, look,” Opa said, “you see him there in the middle, the baker dressed in black handing out the bread roll? That’s him; and beside him, in the meat stall, is his brother Benno. The woman is Hilde, his sister, who is counting out the money. The man in the smithy is their cousin, Klaus.”

Frieda raised a dubious eyebrow and Opa sighed, “I know this because someone wrote their names beside the portraits. The letters have faded, but I’ve gazed at this portrait more decades than you.”

“Was Johannes a baker?”

“No, the family was already wealthy and respected by then. In the Renaissance, three brothers, one a baker, one a butcher and the third a blacksmith, working together, amassed the wealth passed down to us. We descend from the baker, like Johannes, but he was an artist.”

“Hmm,” Frieda still doubted Opa’s veracity, “how did he vanish?”

“No one knows, he just disappeared. People gossiped that he ran off with a woman of a lower class. Others said someone murdered him and hid his remains somewhere.”

“Who would murder him?” Frieda asked.

“Most people thought his sister and her husband, Lorenz, that man in the background who looks like he wants to vomit.”


Opa shrugged, “Jealousy? No one even knows it happened. There’s no evidence.”

Frieda shrugged and said good night. Opa sat down in his armchair and opened his book as she left the room.

Hours later, Frieda woke up from a strange dream she could not recall. Moonlight peeped through the slit in the middle of the closed curtains. Frieda had an odd feeling she needed to gaze at the painting one more time. That sliver of a dream which had vanished like a will-o’-the-wisp nagged at her, and she guessed it had been about the painting. Frieda got out of bed and shoved her feet into her slippers. She opened the bedroom door and tiptoed down the hall towards the library.

The fireplace glowed with red-hot embers, and Frieda noticed Opa’s sleeping figure in the armchair. His snores mingled with the tick-tock of the cuckoo clock hanging on the wall.

Frieda crept up to the painting, careful not to wake Opa, but he gave a loud snort and opened his eyes to find her gazing at the picture.

“Frieda? What is it?” He whispered.

“Nothing, I just, I needed to see it again,” she replied.

Opa rubbed the sleep from his eyes and stretched, “I guess it’s time for bed now.”

The cuckoo clock struck the hour, and the little bird sprang out and cuckooed three times. A cold draft blew and revived the dying embers in the hearth; they cast an eerie red glow over the room.

Frieda gasped, “Opa, look!”

But Opa was already aware of what was happening in the painting.

The butcher, Benno, moved and struck Johannes in the head with a cleaver. Johannes toppled forward as blood oozed from the frame. As he fell, his body breached the barrier between the two-dimensional painting and landed with a hollow thud on the three-dimensional floor.

Frieda gripped Opa’s hand, who squeezed hers back; neither moved.

The murderer returned to his position in the meat stall, but their gazes were intent on Johannes’s body on the floor.

The moonlight entered the tall windows and shone on the specter. One hand moved, then the other, and little by little Johannes stirred. With the cleaver still lodged in his head, he stood. His ghostly eyes fixed on the two observers. He floated toward the tall bookshelf in the corner and pulled a volume from the shelf. A phantom door slid open, and he disappeared inside it.

Another cold draft blew from the bookcase, and both Frieda and Opa sensed the spell had broken.

“It wasn’t vomit-face,” Frieda murmured. 

Opa walked to the bookcase. He pulled all the books from the shelf until he found the one that triggered the hidden door. It creaked open. Frieda peeked around Opa’s hunching shoulders. There, in a nook too narrow for anyone to sit, slumped a pile of rags and bones, the skull split down the middle.


The Well

Laura gazes into the well on Rainier’s farm. On sunny days, the sun shines upon the still water with sparkles that seem to light it up from within its depth. The dark water, with its tiny sprinkles of light, looks like the universe entire. In that well, Laura reminisces about the fabric of space-time and all the laws of physics she loves, even after Alastor, her devil, cajoled her into leaving college.

Sometimes, when she looks into that well with the sunlight playing upon its water, Laura sees the young girl who stumbled out of the farmland and into the city with a passion for astrophysics and a scholarship in hand. Having spent her childhood enveloped by the speckled dome of the darkest night skies, it shocked her to discover the only stars visible in the city where those portrayed in the posters along the walls of the myriad of movie theaters. 

Laura often recalls college, before Alastor, and the many days spent studying and untangling the mysteries of the universe. She marvels at the interconnectedness of everything, and at the undeniable bond between humans and the stars. She once thought she would specialize in quantum mechanics, because the hectic hubbub of the subatomic world fascinated and enthralled her. Then she met her devil, and that young, bright girl vanished, no, morphed into a submissive, subservient wife who had not opened a book for years. 

Now, alone on that farm, little by little, Laura has been clearing the cobwebs from her mind. From the cabin’s windows, she often gazes at the tiny specks of stars she can almost glimpse. She is still too afraid to leave the safety of the cabin’s shelter at night, lest they find her. Nighttime was once her passion, and their realm, and Laura is now too fearful of treading into it. They are most powerful at night; she soon learned. 

Laura bends down and picks up a pebble. She throws it into the well, smiling at the distinct plop, and watches the water ripple in all its dazzling sparkle. An image forms in the dark water. A young girl appears, with curly hair and eyes so green they shine like emeralds. The girl is smiling, and Laura notices a long silver chain hanging from her neck. By the way it hangs in a V-shape, Laura knows a heavy pendant must dangle from it. Laura wants to reach out and touch the girl, so vivid is the image in the water. 

Then, a shadow creeps across the girl’s face. Long tentacle-fingers emerge from it and clasp the girl’s mouth. Laura glimpses a top hat as the girl vanishes, and gasping, she recognizes Dagan, Alastor’s brother. She covers her face in her hands and lets out a muffled sob.

During the final gunfight at her house when she killed Alastor and fled into the woods, his bullet ripped a hole right through her courage; Laura’s knees buckle. She opens her eyes and dares to peek into the well. In the rippling water, she discerns a black horse and rider galloping through the darkness, and deep in her heart knows the girl, whoever she is, is out of danger… for now.

Laura takes a deep breath and exhales the fear out. She glances around the farm, takes in its safe tranquility and enters the cabin. She does not see the dark mist rolling above the treetops, searching…


The Snake

Muriel gazed at herself in the mirror and searched for the young girl she had seen all her life, but found only the baggy-eyed crone she had become. She breathed a shaky sigh as tears threatened to well up and burst like geysers out of her already red and puffy eyes.

“Ugly,” The Snake whispered.

She knew The Snake well; it lived inside her and told her harsh truths. It was relentless and cruel and slithered around her synapses in a slow meander that never stopped.

Muriel wondered when The Snake had wormed itself into her mind.

“I was never like this,” she whispered, afraid to speak up lest The Snake hissed again.

Muriel closed her eyes and pictured Mom, the one genuine memory she had of her: a hug, given when she was just a child. Although Muriel sometimes thought it might be only a dream. When The Snake first took up residence in her mind, the memory of Muriel’s long-dead mother was strong enough to clamp down on it and silence its forked tongue. But now, it was often powerless against the petty, demeaning words The Snake whispered.

“Ugly,” The Snake said again, “he’ll leave you because you’re ugly.”

And the tears welled up and spilled over Muriel’s closed eyelids, wetting her eyelashes so they clumped together into a salty mess.

“He won’t,” Muriel challenged The Snake, but deep inside she knew it only spoke the truth.

He no longer cared. He no longer loved her. She did nothing right; she was such a klutz, such a weirdo. The Snake was on a roll, and its venomous words slithered all over Muriel’s mind until it filled with the poison-green thoughts of despair and worthlessness. It also defiled Mom’s memory; Muriel tried to cling to it as it burned away like an old film on fire.

“Stop it!” She cried and opened her eyes.

The bathroom was green, and Muriel, for an instant, believed the toxin had oozed out of her and tainted the bathroom, her sanctuary. The last place where she could be herself, where she could cheer herself, and enjoy the peace and warmth of a cleansing bath. Here she could escape her body and her mind and hold on to Mom’s memory, just as long as she never looked in the mirror.

Tonight, Muriel had dawdled too long, and the steam had peeled itself off the glass before she finished dressing and was ready to leave her sanctuary. It had taken one glance, and now the bathroom glowed toxic green.

Muriel rubbed her eyes and opened them again. The green veil dissipated, and as her eyes adjusted, she spotted a blurry figure in the mirror gazing back at her.

“Ugly,” The Snake jeered again as the image in the glass sharpened.

“Why are you here?” Muriel asked The Snake, “Where did you come from?”

“You need me,” The Snake replied, “you made me.”

“Lie!” The reflection in the mirror screamed and startled Muriel, who placed her hand across your mouth, astonished by what she beheld. 

The reflection glared back with Muriel’s girlish face and fiery eyes. It was the image she searched for every time she dared peek in the mirror. Now here she was, that young, graceful girl with bouncy curls and bright eyes, scowling at her. Her eyes blazed with fury, and Muriel was thunderstruck that the image she sought for so long would glare back at her in wrath; the past angry at the present.

“He brought The Snake,” The Reflection fixed its scorching gaze on Muriel, “he planted it in your brain with his boorishness and his belittling comments and deeds.”

As Muriel stared into those seething pupils, realization broke through the toxic green fog in her mind, and the same spark of ire that burned in The Reflection’s eyes kindled in Muriel’s chest and rose to her cheeks, then flowed down to her toes until her whole body, her whole self was ablaze with wrath and indignation.

The Reflection raised its hand, though Muriel stood motionless, transfixed, as all his actions, comments and jokes replayed in her mind. It reached its arm out towards Muriel and broke through the smooth barrier of the glass as its fingers neared Muriel’s forehead.

The Snake hissed and bared its hideous poison-filled fangs. It lunged towards The Reflection, but The Reflection grabbed it, ripped it out of Muriel’s brain and dashed it against the medicine cabinet. The door sprang open, and the contents spilled onto the vanity. Muriel gazed at the mess with stunned eyes. All the little instruments and lotions she used to make herself presentable to him, to please him, lay scattered on the white granite countertop. 

A disgusted sneer crept up Muriel’s lips, and a low growl escaped her throat. She flung open the bathroom door. The steamy poison, neutralized by the anger-fire that flared inside her, seeped into the hall. Muriel paid it no mind. She put on her shoes, grabbed her purse, and walked out the front door. All she took from that house was Mom’s memory, now shining brighter than ever.


Walking Home

Walking home down the dark alley on a moonless night, I shrieked. He looked like Nosferatu and snapped me from my reverie when he morphed out of the shadows and fell into step beside me.

“Excuse me…” he murmured an empty apology, as if he had meant to catch up to me.

“I was not expecting you…” I mumbled and sped up, trying to steady my nerves. 

The tall, pale and lanky man with sunken eyes, buck teeth and dressed in black let me pass. I felt his eyes on the back of my neck as I rounded the corner into my street. I considered walking on and pretending I lived elsewhere, but remembered the all-night pharmacy across the road.

Still rattled, I stepped into the bright shop. I often buy candy or last-minute groceries here, and knew the employees, at least by sight. There was no one at the checkout, which did not surprise me, since they often walked around the store, but would always materialize as soon as someone neared the register.

I ambled around the candy aisle for a while, but did not wish to buy anything. Nothing made my mouth water. In fact, my stomach was in a knot.

Countless times I had walked the streets by myself and encountered so many people. None, not even the homeless man who yelled obscenities at the air, had ever frightened me as this creepy Nosferatu. There was nothing about him that should scare me, I rationalized. He was only an unfortunate-looking fellow walking alone at night.

“It’s not even that late,” I muttered.

“Beg pardon, miss?”

I jumped and stared at the employee standing beside me. 

“Sorry, I was just, um, thinking aloud,” I managed an innocent smile.

He smiled back, and I gazed into his warm, brown eyes.

“Is there anything you need?” He asked, and his voice was music to my ears.

“No, no,” I stammered, “I, um… Someone startled me outside, and I’m still a little shaken.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, and my heart skipped a beat when he smiled, “Do you live nearby?” 

“Across the street,” I replied. 

A little voice in my head said to never show strangers where I live, but a pleasant brain-fog drowned it out. I grinned at the employee while a wispy thought wondered why I had never seen him.

“Would you like me to walk you out? My shift will be over in a few minutes.” He held my gaze, and I blushed.

He was handsome and kind, and I drifted into an ocean of comfort and trust. The little voice in my head was screaming now, but with muffled, mangled and nonsensical words. The world stopped when I assented, and he beamed at me with the radiance of a thousand suns.

I lallygagged until he beckoned to me, and I followed him out the sliding doors.

“Is the man you saw still here?” He asked as we reached the curb.

I tore my eyes away from him for a quick glance, “No, he isn’t.”

The little voice whispered, how did he know it was a man? You never said it was a man! But it might have been speaking Greek for all I cared.

We crossed and approached the stoop to my apartment building. The street was quiet and the porch-light dim. I had an odd sense of artificial silence, though I heard the bustle of the city traffic a few streets away. 

I stared into his eyes and smiled at him. We were at the front door. I had a vague idea I should reach into my purse for my keys, but I only stared into his handsome face. He brushed my cheek with his fingers, and I trembled. He leaned closer.

“May I come in?” He cooed.

I was about to nod, but was so entranced by his touch and breath on my skin that I could not reply. He put his arm around my waist and pulled me into his embrace. The porch-light flickered, and I felt his warm kiss on my lips.

His gentle hand guided my head sideways and brushed my hair away, exposing my neck. I closed my eyes, enjoying the moment as he placed his lips on my throbbing vein and made a soft, lustful hiss. 

I gave a blissful giggle and blinked my eyes open, then screamed. Nosferatu’s pallid face appeared from the darkness behind him. In an instant, long bony fingers grabbed hold of his shoulders and pulled him away from me.

Horrified, I glimpsed his handsome face transform into a growling grimace. His eyes became two fiery red-hot coals, while two long fangs gnashed at Nosferatu.

The vampire lunged at the pale, lanky shadow-lurker. But Nosferatu, lightning fast, drove a wooden stake into the vampire’s heart. The vampire squealed in agony, then shattered into a cluster of spiders.

Calm and collected, Nosferatu quashed every one. Terrified and motionless, I stood on the stoop; the porch-light flickered and buzzed. When he finished, Nosferatu turned to me and smiled. It was a soft, comforting smile that improved his wraith-like countenance a thousandfold.

“Pardon me, miss,” he said, “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”


Heavy Metal

Bart lifted the beer bottle to the light, discerned in its murky tint that a couple of swigs remained, and put the bottle to his lips. He laid his head back on his grandfather’s armchair, for which he fought tooth and nail to keep, and glanced around the living room as the bitter, yet nutty dark beer fizzled on his tongue. Everything in the room was Kathy’s, and a sense of slow-moving displacement had been creeping over Bart since she moved in with him. This was his apartment, his living room, his bedroom, his kitchen. He paid for every inch of space, yet Kathy had seized it with her things, her furniture, her decor. Bart’s love for—and infatuation with—Kathy blinded him to the stealthy invasion slithering into his house, until one day, he realized only his grandfather’s armchair, his beer and his heavy metal music prevailed. Even a wine cooler full of merlot, pinot and who-knows-what had snuck into the corner beside the stereo. 

Steve Vai blared from the speakers, and Bart let the heavy metal music soothe him. Kathy neither understood nor appreciated the rough sound of his music, much less the wish to relax to it in the evening. She preferred actual music, she quipped, and Bart snorted at her musical tastes. He fought tooth and nail to keep his CDs too, as well as the beer. 

Kathy never drank beer; and Bart never drank wine. He told her once about the first time he tasted wine. An image had shot through his mind: a silhouette standing before him in the moonlight. It was a woman wearing a small straw hat cocked to one side. He recalled a long-sleeved full dress draped and layered at the back. She pointed at him and the image vanished in a bright flash. Since then, wine churned his stomach. Kathy had giggled and told him not to be silly. 

But Bart loved Kathy, and the hot sultry nights in bed with her meandered through his brain to the cadence of Steve Vai’s melody. The tune ended, and the sensual memories faded. A pause, then the harsh riffs of electric guitars and the bombastic roll of drums exploded as a new song began. The powerful intro returned Bart to the moment and reminded him of the quiet decision he had made that very day. As the track played, Bart’s confidence in his resolution grew. 

Bart nodded, agreeing with himself, then took the last sip of beer and let the music flow through him, as his muscles relaxed and his body melted into his beloved armchair. His eyelids drooped, and darkness closed in around him.

He awoke to the muffled sound of a key in the door. The room was dark and silent and Bart glanced around it to get his bearings. He felt everything was different, though he could only discern dark masses of furniture in the shadows. Somehow, this was his living room, but not his living room.

He reached for his cellphone on the side table and found nothing but a book and a glass of wine. He frowned, confused. Then—in this room that was his, but not his — a door opened and he heard the click-clack of women’s shoes in the dark.

“Kathy?” he called, but no one answered.

He turned towards the living room threshold as his eyes adjusted to the faint moonlight peering through the window before him. But in his living room, with his beer and Steve Vai on the stereo, he sat with his back to the window, not facing it.

A shadow stepped into his line of vision and, outlined by the dim light from the window, a woman stood in front of him. He recognized the hat and the long-sleeved dress of the image evoked by wine, but in the moonlight, he distinguished Kathy’s scowling face. She fixed her steel gaze on him as her lip curled into a lopsided sneer. She raised her arm and pointed at him. The gun glinted in the window’s light behind her.

“No!” Bart yelled as a flash of light shot from the barrel.

He woke up with a shriek. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his breath came in ragged gasps. Heavy metal was still blaring on the stereo. The lights were on, and he had knocked the beer bottle off the side table. He took deep breaths, hoping to calm his thundering heart thumping in his ears and muffling all sound.

A figure stepped in front of him, and he gazed up at Kathy.

“I had the worst nightmare…”

He had only just registered Kathy’s icy glare and fiendish sneer when the banging flash ended his life.


The Message

The fire crackled in the fireplace and lit up the otherwise dusky room. Eric growled and dashed his glass of port against it. Flames flared and ashes swirled, giving Eric’s reflection in the mirror above the mantel a grimace of abject fury. His thick eyebrows scowled and his teeth gnashed, as the flickering fire played with the lines on his face in a dance of light and shadow. He looked like a devil with the still-tender scar across his forehead and the gray hairs that now lined his face. Eric was young, but the war had aged him, and not well. He returned home with a permanent limp and a diminishing bank account. At least she had still been there… until now. 

She ran off with Lewis, that no good two-timing blackguard who called himself a brother. Lewis knew nothing of brotherhood. Eric served with better men, far more valiant and loyal than his own flesh and blood. Meanwhile, Lewis spent the war flitting from party to party and squandering the rest of Father’s fortune. Were he alive today, Father would tan Lewis’s hide, no doubt! 

Angry tears welled up in Eric’s eyes, and snarling, he fought them back. They spilled down his cheeks anyway, and Eric wiped them away which such force his sleeve scraped his cheeks and the scar on his forehead stung. The fire rose and ebbed; he paced the room like a caged tiger, not heeding the searing pain in his leg, and clenching and unclenching his fist.

“Damn them!” He cursed at the walls, the rug, the mirror. 

Tongues of fire licked his wrath as he glared into the fireplace. He ran his fingers through his hair and, in one swift move, upended the antique pedestal table by Father’s old high-backed chair.

The baroque table had been one of Mother’s favorite pieces of furniture. It had one ornate carved leg with a tripod base, a thick round tabletop with inlaid tile depicting a phoenix, and a tiny drawer that was always locked since the key had vanished before its arrival at the shop. The table rested on its side; the tiny drawer was now open, and a piece of paper lay on the rug beside it. The paper fluttered as the fire flickered, and Eric glared at it through gritted teeth and tear-filled eyes.

Curiosity crept up his spine, and Eric picked up the paper, which was folded into a letter with no recipient or sender. He broke the wax seal and opened it.

Eric huffed. It was nothing but gibberish. He was about to fling it into the fire when he gave it a second glance.

“This looks like a cryptogram,” he muttered as he leaned closer to the firelight to read it.

Eric hobbled to Father’s desk across the room, and sitting in the big leather chair, switched on the desk lamp. He reached for a pen, and with a nostalgic lump in his throat, set to decoding it as he had done years ago by Mother’s sick bed. She loved puzzles and had bequeathed that love to him during many a quiet evening. His last moments with her had been over a cryptic crossword he helped her decipher.

That skill served him well in the army, and he spent most of the war decoding messages from the Nazis to their Luftwaffe. Though he did not escape the bombs — the ghastly scar and his shattered leg proved it. 

Eric focused his mind on the task at hand, forgetting her perfidy and Lewis’s betrayal. It was a substitution code written in symbols; difficult, but not impossible.

The fire dwindled, and the room cooled around him, as the message appeared, letter by letter. 

Confused, he furrowed his brow.

“Decipher this message and prosper for all eternity.”

Eric leaned back in the chair and huffed.

“What is this?” He said, the fire hissed in reply.

Eric stood and, noting the chill, limped across the room and threw another log into the fire. The flames sputtered and cackled, playing with the dead wood.

Eric returned the overturned table to its upright position and sat on the high-backed chair beside it. He watched the flames crackle and pop as his eyelids grew heavy and drifted off to sleep. His hand drooped over the arm of the chair, and his fingers loosened the grip on the decoded message. 

The paper fluttered on the rug as a draft of wind gusted through the room, despite the closed doors and windows. It lifted the paper into a whirlwind of dancing flames and blew it into the fire. With one final wheeze, the fire incinerated the cipher and died.

The cold crept into Eric’s bones, and he stirred, shivering. He opened his eyes and stood to throw another log into the fire when, catching his reflection in the mirror, he gasped. The scar and the gray hairs had vanished! His youthful, flabbergasted face stared back at him, and only then did he realize he felt no pain in his leg. Rather, he felt no pain anywhere. He covered his mouth with his hand—a million thoughts flying through his brain—when he glanced into the cold hearth.
Glints and glimmers sparkled in the dim light of Father’s desk lamp. Instead of glowing embers, Eric beheld a trove of diamonds, gold, silver and precious gems where only ashes should be.


Rider Through the Mist

The insults and accusations flew like daggers and stabbed the walls of Adrian’s house. His parents’ fight resonated through the wallpaper of his room. His little brothers’ video game thundered in his ears.

Adrian put his head in his hands and drew two shaky breaths. He closed his book and reached for his earplugs. He hated wearing them; they only muffled the world without providing the peaceful silence he craved. Not even Cassie’s home satisfied that yearning. Over there, the silence was doleful; it weighed heavy on Mr. Powers’ brow and shoulders. Cassie bore its burden as well. But of late, Adrian had noticed her sorrow lifting, and now a tiny ember of something alive shone in Cassie’s emerald eyes. Still, that sad silence was better than none. 

Maybe I’ll only ever find that peaceful silence when I’m dead, he thought, but checked himself when the grove by the Old Cemetery flashed in his mind. There, among the ever-blooming trees, he found peace, though not silence. 

He sighed and pushed the earplugs into his ears as the world muted, and his brain filled with a heavy and dense artificial quiet. The alternative was the incessant noise that rattled his house.

Adrian laid back on his pillow and closed his eyes. A deep, multicolored mist filled his mind, and Adrian welcomed it; it fluttered like the wind playing with the blossoms in the grove. Soon, his mind sank into its own depths.

Out of the swirling mind-mist, a black horse appeared. Adrian recognized Ethur’s obsidian sheen glowing on his lustrous coat. His long, glossy mane bounced as he cantered towards Adrian. With his cool nose, Ethur touched Adrian’s hand resting on his chest. Adrian wanted to open his eyes, but his eyelids were too heavy, and the brain-mist too dense.

Adrian placed his hands on Ethur’s back and mounted him.

Ethur galloped through the mist until Adrian discerned a window flickering with flame-light. Ethur neared it and Adrian marveled at the stealthy silence of his hooves, like he was riding a cat. As the thought flashed, Adrian noticed the head and rounded ears of a black panther. It had Ethur’s obsidian luster, and Adrian knew this was Ethur in his panther shape.

They peeked in the window.

The room beyond the glass looked seedy and grotesque; Adrian imagined a putrid stink, though he smelled nothing. A dark fireplace lit the room, and even the flames flickered with a vile glow. A man and a woman sat on two shabby high-backed chairs facing each other. Both had ghastly features, as if they wore their souls on their skin.

“Have you found her?” the woman asked.

“No,” the man replied deadpan, “but there might be another more powerful than Laura Duke, and easier too. She’s only twelve. I believe her name is Cassie.”

“I don’t care!” The woman snapped, and the man flinched but hid his reflex behind a cynical leer.

“I want Laura! I want that bitch to suffer for what she did to your brother!”

“I understand,” the man cast his eyes down, and Adrian saw an angry, unrepentant spark in them as he did so.

There was a moment’s silence.

“More powerful, you say?” The woman purred.


“And only twelve?”


“Why have you not brought her?”

“I will.”

The woman smirked, “Can you seduce her?”

The man grinned, “With your help, yes.”

The woman cackled and rose from the chair. She crossed the room and took a vial from a low shelf. 

She gave it to him, “You better use it well.”

“She will not resist the charms of the new boy in school. Trust me.”

Adrian gasped, and the pair stopped. Their heads whipped around and faced the window, but saw only the dense fog that veiled their evil from the world.

“Someone’s watching,” the woman snarled and fixed her gaze in Adrian’s direction.

Adrian opened his mouth to scream as the fire flared and two sharp eyes gleamed from its flames. A shadowy figure growled in the fireplace.

Adrian’s eyes flew open, he lay on his bed and took deep breaths to calm his beating heart. His fingers closed around Ethur’s tiny obsidian stone figure lying on his chest.

MINCHIATE: Two of Cups

Jordan Nash

“He died right here,” the old neighbor called out to Tessa as she passed by the empty house.

“Beg pardon?”

“It’s why you’re here, right?” The neighbor said, “You want to know how he died?”

“Who?” She asked, nonplussed.

“Jordan Nash, the football player they murdered while walking his dog.”

Tessa furrowed her brow, yet something pricked at her memory.

“Jordan Nash, yeah,” Tessa mused, “but that many was years ago.”

“He won two Super Bowls, y’know. But he never let fame get to him. Never moved out of his house, though he had boatloads of money. Used to walk his dog every night.”

Tessa let the old man reminisce. He had that faraway look in his eyes and the distant voice that came from a long-dormant nook in his memory.

“You a reporter?” He returned to the moment.

Tessa shook her head.

“No, I live in the house behind this one. Just moved here.”

“Oh, have you met Minnie?” He asked.


“His widow, she’s a kind lady. She’ll tell you all about it.”

Tessa gazed at the old neighbor, confused. She thought the house was empty. It looked abandoned with the overgrown grass, rusty gate and shattered windows. An old faded ‘For Sale’ sign stood in the front yard, creaking in the wind that blew down from the mountain.

Tessa chose this small, middle-class neighborhood because of the mountain, the peace it brought so far away from the city center, and its affordability. No one told her this was where the famous quarterback, Jordan Nash, had died.

Tessa wondered whether the widow was alive, entombed in that ramshackle house.

A car pulled up beside them, and a young woman climbed out.

“Dad,” she called to the old neighbor, “you all right?”

“Yes,” he said smiling, “I was telling this young reporter about Jordan Nash and how he used to walk his dog every night.”

Tessa nodded when she caught the woman’s eye.

“He would whistle, one long, then two short whistles. That’s how he called to Prophet, his basset hound. He was the best dog. We all loved Prophet.”

The woman turned to Tessa and said, “I’m sorry, he’s…”

She trailed off when the man interrupted her, “I told her she should speak to Minnie, she would be glad to talk about her husband.”

“Dad,” the woman said, “you know Mrs. Nash moved out a long time ago. We said goodbye to her as the moving van drove away, remember? Jordan Nash has been dead for at least four decades.”

“No!” The old man gasped, “Have they caught the killer?”

“They never found out who did it, now come inside.”

Tessa said goodbye as the daughter coaxed the old man into their neighboring house.

That night, Tessa sat on the back porch, enjoying the warm summer evening. The moonlight silhouetted the dark mass of the deserted house whose backyard bordered her own. Tessa laid her head back in her lawn chair and listened to the crickets’ joyous chirping.

A long whistle sounded through the night, followed by two short chirps.

Tessa opened her eyes and wondered whether the old neighbor was playing a prank on her, but decided against it. He seemed to be adrift in the mind’s ocean of the long-ago. She surmised that, to him, only a few days had passed since the murder.

Tessa finished her lemonade and entered her house. She turned the garden lights off, checked the locks on all doors and windows, and headed upstairs, switching lamps off on her way.

Her bedroom faced the back, and through the window, she saw into the overgrown yard of the quarterback’s house. The full moon shone its radiant silver light upon it, and Tessa thought it seemed eerie.

The long whistle followed by two short chirps sounded again, and a dog barked.

“Prophet!” A man called, “Come on, buddy, let’s go!”

Tessa stood motionless by the window. Her heart beat in her ears. Were the neighbors pranking her?

A shot rang out through the night. A dog growled, but went silent as another shot thundered. She heard footsteps running on the sidewalk and glimpsed a shadowy figure as it ran between houses. 

Tessa dialed the sheriff to report a shooting. When she stated her location, the deputy paused.

“Are you near Jordan Nash’s old house?” He asked.

“Yeah, I bought the house behind it, the backyards abut each other.”

“Did you hear a long whistle, two short ones, then a dog barking?”

“Yes, I think the dog’s name is Prophet, the man called out to it. One shot, the dog growling, and another shot. Afterwards, there were running footsteps on the street.”

“Yep,” the deputy sighed, “happens every night this month. Ol’ Jordan ain’t at rest. If you ask me, the wife did it, but we never proved it. She’s the only one that hated that dog, and the only one cold-blooded enough to kill it, too.”