“Steve struts sexily down the street…” Steve sang to the beat of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” blaring on his earphones. He liked the song because it mentioned him and often changed the lyric to whatever mood fit him.
He swaggered out of the barbershop with his sleek new haircut—a messy quiff—his fitted black Calvin Klein T-shirt that made his muscles bulge, and his low-cut jeans with whiskering on the front. Steve felt like a modern, hotter James Dean.
“Are you ready for this!” He sang (off-key) at an old woman who blew a raspberry and yelled “fool!” as she hurried away.
Steve was undeterred, nothing could stop him, and he shuffled his feet in time to the music while bobbing his head from side to side.
He almost stopped cold when he saw a goddess heading his way. Oh mama, the girl was hot, with legs that went on for days, tight miniskirt, swaying hips and a bod so fine… He licked his lips and smirked. Other men glanced at her and through the music he heard their wolf-whistles. The goddess walked on, eyes fixed straight ahead and unflinching, aloof to the men’s attentions. Steve grinned, those other guys had nothing on him.
He bopped and approached the goddess while in his ears Brian May did his guitar thing. The goddess was gliding straight for him, and as Steve prepared to belt out the song and get her attention, someone pulled the ground out from under him. He hovered in the air for an instant, then fell into blackness; sharp pain scraped his forearms and knees. One earphone fell out and hung pathetically by its cord.
Steve gazed up at the round hole of light above him. A shadow passed, and he glimpsed long bare legs in red shoes; the click, click, click of high heels resounded on the cavernous walls of the manhole as they walked away.
“Hey, buddy, you okay?” A construction worker in a hard hat peeked down at him, “don’ worry, we’ll get ya out!”
Steve smelled something nasty and looked down at his feet. He was shin-high in sewage muck and his lips quivered when he realized he’d ruined his brand new Nikes.
“Another one bites the dust!” Freddie Mercury sang out of his dangling earphone, the voice tinny, yet a powerful punch to Steve’s pride.
Judith stared at the plate piled with food she didn’t want. It’s the right thing, she thought, it’s for a good cause; yet her stomach grumbled and her mouth watered at the sight of her soft-boiled eggs, her toast and her favorite strawberry jam.
Judith’s hand reached for the butter knife but stopped when her father grunted. He read the newspaper and did not glance at her daughter. He took a sip of coffee.
“Those suffragettes are a blight on mankind,” her father flung the newspaper onto the breakfast table in disgust, “women have no business voting. Their place is in the home, raising our children. How dare they demand more?”
Father’s words churned in Judith’s stomach and resolve replaced the hunger and emptiness. This is right, she said to herself, there’s no other way to make them listen, no other way to make anybody listen.
Yet, the food beckoned. Cook always made the eggs perfect, neither too dry nor too runny, the bread was toasted just right and Cook had made the jam from last year’s exceptional strawberries. Last night she’d also left the delicious roast and potatoes.
Judith glanced at her mother who wore her meek “you know best dear, you decide for us” smile which made Judith’s blood boil. She stared as her mother opened her mouth wide and took a bite of the delectable toast spread with soft churned butter and jam. It made her queasy with contempt.
“Women should never have rights, what would they do with them? They have neither the intelligence nor the emotional stability to run a business, let alone vote for government,” her father railed on, “no, no, if I let a woman run my business she’d tank it and you my dears, would be out in the cold. Best leave the tough decisions to men.”
Judith clenched her jaw and gripped the seat of her chair. She stared straight ahead at the plate of food no one had realized remained untouched. She took a deep breath to calm the scalding anger ready to boil out of her mouth.
“Judith, dear,” her mother looked her up and down, “stop dressing in white, people will think you’re one of those suffragettes. What would our friends say? No, no, we cannot have that, please change into something more colorful.”
Judith’s eyes shot death rays at her mother, but the woman was too busy eating her meal. Judith excused herself and left the table without taking a bite.
Frida sat on the high-backed chair and waited. The grandfather clock ticked as the minutes passed. The sky rumbled, portending storms. She gazed upward with a wary eye and hoped the thunder and lightning would hold off until they arrived.
She set the dining room table for nine people. Her children and spouses were finally coming to dinner. Frida hadn’t seen them since their father died. A lightning bolt flashed through the window and Frida sighed. The house smelled of roast and cookies and now the storm threatened to ruin her much expected evening.
Frida glanced at her watch. They were late.
She surveyed the room; all was in order. Her eyes rested on the little figurines on the mantelpiece. They were stone figures and metal amulets of the Old Norse gods she loved so much. On the walls hung pictures, paintings she’d done herself of the same old gods as she imagined them and over the doors she’d placed carvings of runes.
An old familiar pain stabbed her heart as she remembered Wayne, her husband, telling her to throw that shit out. She had put them all in a box for thirty years and unearthed them after he died, once the walls had stopped echoing his voice and the floors had ceased creaking with his footsteps. Frida grabbed her old tattered copy of Norse Mythology and pressed it to her chest as she’d done for years whenever Wayne’s remarks stung her soul. She shut her eyes and held it tight and told herself when she opened them, she would see the clean, dusted and vacuumed room she’d slaved over for the past week, and not the shabby pigsty Wayne always said she kept.
The past days had revolved around this dinner. She’d planned the menu, shopped at three different markets for the perfect ingredients, and spent days cleaning the house down to the last nook and cranny.
Fat drops pounded on the roof and window. The grandfather clock ticked merciless as the evening dragged on with no sign of her children. Each ticktock sang “not-coming” and “hate-you”, and “stu-pid”, and “use-less” until the ticking got so loud it morphed into Wayne’s raspy voice and her children’s echoed the words. Frida clutched her book tight and laid her head back against the chair. She fought back tears, and a lump formed in her throat.
The hail pattered down as the tears burst through her eyelids. It thumped and banged and the whole house sounded like a hard-rock concert (another pleasure Wayne had stripped from her).
A tap on the door startled Frida out of her misery. She stood up in a flash, and still clenching her book, glided to the door. Could it be? Did they come after all? Did they brave the storm to see her?
Frida opened the door with a smile which vanished when she saw two tall men on the stoop. One dressed in a dark cloak, half of his face hidden by a lock of hair that covered his eye. The other was muscular with hair so red and wild his head seemed aflame.
“May I help you?” She bleated and cursed herself for not peeking through the peephole.
“Madam, could you spare food and shelter for weary travelers? My sons and I have walked a long way, and we saw your light…”
The cloaked man’s voice was soothing and familiar, as if she’d heard it a long time ago.
“Hello!” The mellifluous voice came from behind the cloaked man and a smiling blond face appeared. He lit up the night and Frida’s fear and apprehension washed away from her as the young man’s smile warmed her heart.
“Please come in,” she said and stepped aside.
The tall men filled the hallway. She offered to take the cloak, but the man refused.
“You are expecting company?” The red-head asked, pointing to the dining room.
“My children. They are late.”
“Bad storm out there,” the blond man said and his voice tickled like a baby’s soft laugh.
She led the men into the kitchen and offered to pack them a meal to go, but as she glimpsed the lovely table, an idea popped in her mind.
“I don’t think my children are coming. They were close with their father, not so much with me.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Would you gentlemen share the meal with me?”
The three men smiled and followed her into the dining room. The storm raged outside but inside the house burst with merriment. Ms. Williams, the neighbor, glanced once or twice in their direction, puzzled by the laughter that broke through the rumble of the storm. She knew Frida was unhappy and marveled that her children had shown up at all.
“They think I’m an idiot, you know,” Frida blurted out.
“Who?” The red-head asked.
“My children. Their father taught them I am weak and stupid. It embarrasses them to be with me in public. My presence shames them,” tears sprang to her eyes as her voice broke, “perhaps they are right.”
“They are not,” the cloaked man spoke in a voice so deep even the thunder quieted, “you have forgotten who you are, but you are not weak.”
The men held her gaze, and the room went silent.
“We have been watching you forever. You are better than you think. We are here to take you home.”
“Who are you?”
“You know who we are,” the cloaked man fixed his piercing blue eye on her.
Frida glanced from one man to another and the fog of insecurity and oppression Wayne had woven around her dissipated. She looked at her paintings, and her figurines and at the book she’d set on the table, and all fell into place, as if she’d found the missing piece of a puzzle. The cloaked man whose hair hid his eye socket because he had no eye. He’d exchanged it for wisdom. The muscular red-head who filled the room and whose footfalls rattled the house and appeared on a thunderous evening, his arms folded above a glistening belt. Finally, the man whose radiance lit the darkest night and whose kind smile melted the stoniest, loneliest of hearts.
“You can’t be…” she stuttered.
“Say our names, and we’ll bring you home.”
“You know where, all you must do is say the words.”
Frida gulped. She’d dreamed this for years. As a child, she’d wished they were real. As a teenager, she’d asked for their help. And, as a married woman, she’d shoved them to the back of her mind yet always hoped they’d take her away.
She pointed to the cloaked man, “Odin.”
Her gazed fixed on the red-head, “Thor.”
She beamed at the blond, “Balder.”
The three men smiled.
Ms. Williams followed the policemen into Frida’s house. She’d alerted them because she’d not seen her neighbor since the night of the hailstorm. The house was empty, the grandfather clock the only sound.
Ms. Williams stood in the dining room; she pressed her hands to her chest and whispered, “Wherever you are, Frida, I wish you the happiness you never had.”
A thin veil of dust had settled on the dining room table. It was set for nine.
Emma watched with giddy excitement as the passengers sauntered down the airplane aisle. She thought about her Tarot card of the day, the Ace of Cups, a promise of new beginnings and new emotions. Her leg joggling and her fingers fidgeting, she inhaled and tried to calm the nervousness that threatened to bubble over. The line stalled, and Emma wondered why. Didn’t people want to arrive at their destination? Some annoyed expressions told her they did.
A deep melodious ‘hello’ caught Emma’s ear, and her heart skipped a beat when she glanced in its direction. Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Handsome stepped into the plane and greeted the flight attendants as they flashed sheepish smiles. Emma hoped he’d sit in the empty seat beside her. Maybe his final destination was also Rome, the Eternal City, and maybe it would be the start of the summer romance she’d always dreamed of, a fling like in the movies.
Emma held her breath and fixed her face into a close-lipped smile as he approached. He didn’t notice her as he read the signs above the seats. Emma suppressed an excited giggle when he stopped at her row, which had only two seats on her side of the plane. She sat at the window, a seat she’d chosen to gaze on Rome as they landed. Handsome nodded and slid into the seat beside hers. Emma’s heart beat a mile a minute and she thought her chest would burst. The butterflies in her stomach morphed into hummingbirds and Emma regretted drinking that pre-flight espresso. Emma glanced at Handsome out of the corner of her eye and pondered what to say.
The flight attendants closed the hatch and announced the flight over the intercom. They parroted the security measures and danced the Macarena while pointing to the emergency exits. The airplane whooshed for takeoff.
Handsome laid his head back and closed his eyes. Emma surveyed him. He was the man of her dreams incarnate; black hair, broad chest and bulging muscles. She’d glimpsed dreamy brown eyes as he’d sat down. Handsome squirmed, then settled in his seat. Emma’s heart sank, she hoped he wouldn’t sleep the whole flight, but she didn’t want to be the annoying neighbor who talked nonsense, so she shrugged and reached for her book. She was halfway through the chapter when her nose picked up a scent. It was faint at first, but it made her cringe. Perhaps it was the in-flight meal? She made a mental note not to eat anything raw.
Time dragged on and the odor grew stronger. She detected hints of body odor and feet. Emma snapped off her seatbelt and rose above the seats like a prairie dog peeking out of its burrow and sniffed. She couldn’t discern the source. She glanced at the other passengers but no one seemed perturbed by the stench. Emma pinched her nose and returned to her book. She read further, but the scent turned into a downright stink, heady with a bouquet of sewer.
Handsome woke with a snort. He stretched and glanced around the cabin. His gaze settled on Emma and she smiled. He grinned and nodded, then unfastened his seatbelt and headed down the aisle toward the restroom.
The air cleared and Emma took a deep breath. Emma closed her book and shut her eyes. Maybe if she catnapped… She rested her head against the window and resolved to sleep.
The pang hit her like a ton of bricks. Handsome was fastening his seatbelt. It was him! He was the fount of the ungodly miasma of armpit, dirty laundry, funky feet and sewage sludge!
Emma’s horror rose when she realized they still had more than half of the transatlantic flight to go. She was in a bind, the flight attendants had announced early on the plane was full and there were no empty seats. Should she say something? She didn’t want to be that obnoxious nag who causes a ruckus mid-flight.
Emma turned her face toward the window, pinched her nose, breathed through her mouth, and cursed the TSA for not allowing perfume bottles in the cabin. She heard an ominous rumble from Handsome’s direction and waves of what could only be rotten egg enveloped her like a thick reeking cloud around her head; she stifled a laugh when it happened again. He was farting, every fart like a whiff of Hell, and it was all Emma could do to keep from laughing out loud like the crazy hag that guffaws at nothing.
The restroom would reprieve her for a few minutes. She unbuckled her seatbelt, murmured an excuse and squeezed between Handsome’s legs and the seat before him. She faced the seat in front as she scooched by. He didn’t bother to stand up and let her pass as she made a beeline down the long aisle.
She slowed her pace; a young woman in an aisle seat stopped her as she dawdled by.
“Excuse me, would it be possible to switch seats with you? I’d love to have a window seat as we land in Rome.”
The young woman’s naughty grin told Emma she’d also noticed Handsome and was trying to finagle a seat beside him.
“Sure!” Emma beamed, “I’ll just get my stuff!”
Emma snickered as the young woman slithered past Handsome with her boobs puffed out and sat down beside him.
The old lady by the window beside Emma smelled like jasmine and peach. Emma was glad of the change of air, even if it meant foregoing an aerial view of Rome.
“I told the young lady we could switch seats as we landed,” the old lady said, “but I think she had her eye on that handsome young man.”
“I wonder you gave up that seat? He’s a savory dish.” The old lady grinned with an elfish twinkle in her eye.
“Oh, he’s handsome all right, but he stinks to high heaven.”
The young woman lifted her head above the seats and, with scrunched up nose and puckered lips, looked daggers at Emma.
I sat on the window-seat and glanced at the fountain at the end of the garden as it spurted cheerful gurgles; I thought about the day to come.
The sun had set and blue shadows glimmered on the water. The trees morphed into tall wooden figures, like giants come down from their beanstalks. Crickets and cicadas chirped in the warm summer evening, and, together with the soft bubbling fountain and the distant croak of frogs, they created a natural melody that filled the garden with harmonious sound.
I smiled and extended my hand with fingers outstretched as the fading light twinkled on my ring. The colorful display of reflected light danced before my eyes and I sighed, content.
Somewhere in the house a door closed and the sound of footsteps reverberated on the walls. I leaned my head on the window frame and gazed out. Another door closed and more footsteps pattered through the silent house. These last were heavy and a soft prickle of apprehension needled my heart. I knew these footsteps, and though I wanted to get up and follow, I remained seated at the window, my eyes fixed on the fountain.
Night fell and the soft path-lights illuminated the stone structure of two intertwined fish. The fountain was a tribute to the Pisces constellation whose billions of stars spun light years away from Earth.
I heard the clack-clack of high heels on the dark stone path, followed the thud-thud of manly footfalls. Two shadows appeared, and I watched as they reached the fountain.
In the dim light of the path a man and a woman met. They embraced and kissed, unaware of my watchful gaze.
My eyes filled with tears when the soft light shone on his face and I recognized the man who’d said he loved me and asked me to grow old with him.
I turned my face away; in the darkened room, I glimpsed the ghostly shadow of my wedding dress hanging on the perch.
The wedding day dawned and the servants and guests stirred.
A cry rang through the house.
The bride had vanished; her dress still on its perch, white and desolate in the morning light.
“What goes around, comes around,” Grandma used to say.
I recall the last time I saw her. She sat on the blue high-backed chair and the sun from the window behind glinted off her knitting needles as she wove soft skeins into colorful creations. Moments later, I heard a crash and a moan from the living room. I rushed downstairs and found Grandma on the floor, shattered window shards strewn everywhere.
She grabbed my wrist and fixed her terrified eyes on me.
“He’s here! He’s here!” She cried, wild-eyed.
I wriggled my hand free and ran to the phone.
“Robert, it was Robert!” She raved in the ambulance, sometimes whispering that name, sometimes yelling it. Then she fixed her eyes on me with a strange clarity in her gaze, as if looking through time.
“I killed him,” she said, squeezing my hand so tight it hurt, “find him and make amends.”
“Robert Mackey. Find him, break the curse. What goes around…”
I spent the next ten years, to the day, searching for Robert Mackey without success. Instead, I know Grandma better in death than in life. She was a combat nurse at the start of WWII, and later in the war, the Allies recruited her as a spy. Still, I found no trace of Robert Mackey.
“I’m sorry, Grandma,” I wheeze, “I couldn’t make amends. I didn’t have enough time.”
I lie at the bottom of the stairs, immobile, dazed and my limbs strewn at odd angles. Breathing is difficult and blood stings in my throat.
A dirty young man in a WWII uniform stands over me and points his rifle; only a bullet could have made the bloody hole in his temple.
I move my lips but don’t make a sound.
He nods; rage and revenge flash in his eyes.
His bayonet glints and I gurgle when he stabs me through the heart.
The sun shines through the trees and casts playful shadows on the forest path. I know this path well; it leads home. My footsteps crunch the leaves and pebbles underfoot. Birds sing in the trees and the forest is alive with sound. A breeze blows and I catch a whiff of pine and moss. A cloud covers the sun and I sit on a fallen trunk and wipe the sweat from my forehead.
I remove my shoe to tend my aching foot and groan at the blister growing on my toe. I feel I’ve walked for days, yet I set off early, well fed and rested from a good night’s sleep. Why am I so tired?
The sun beats down on the trunk and the heat weighs on me. I wipe my sweaty forehead again and take a swig from my water flask; the cool liquid soothes my parched throat.
My eyes grow heavy and the ground, so mossy and cool, beckons me to lie down and nap.
“Don’t,” I croak to myself, “remember the stories. This is how they start. Changelings, elves, fairies appear to weary travelers as they stop to rest.”
But the fatigue and heat are too much, and my words sound stale in my ears. I want to nap; I want to lie on the cool, damp earth and close my eyes. This forest is as alive with stories as with flora, and sometimes the sprites bring good, and other times they’re harbingers of evil. I’ve always suspected these encounters were dreams.
I give in and welcome the cold dew as it seeps through the back of my shirt. My eyes grow heavy and my body falls away, as if I’m floating.
I jolt and open my eyes; there’s someone beside me. A young boy sits on the fallen trunk and gazes at me, his head resting on his hand.
“Hello,” I say, “are you lost?”
The boy shakes his head and giggles.
“Are you from around here?”
He shakes his head again.
“Where are you going?”
“Home,” he answers.
“Where’s that?” I ask.
The boy smiles. I gaze into his sparkling eyes and a faint memory tugs at my mind.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“You know my name.”
The boy nods again. I rack my brains; I’ve never seen the boy, but then, I left years ago. Could he be an old friend’s son? Yet, when I study his broad, freckled face and his wide smile, I recognize no one.
“Are you… Rumpelstiltskin?”
The boy laughs like the chatter of squirrels.
“That’s a fairy tale!”
“No, that’s only a play!”
“I give up then.”
“You know me in other forms, I’ve been with you all your life. I’ve guided you, taught you, chided you and consoled you. Have you forgotten me?”
He fixes his bright eyes on me; images, memories, flash through my mind, and I’m on the cusp of understanding, of grasping his identity, but it pulls away like ocean waves.
“Are you a ghost?”
The boy smiles, and the sun’s rays beam on him; the brightness stings my eyes. I blink. He’s gone.
“I’m always with you,” his voice whispers in my ear as the wind whooshes through the trees.
I stand up and put my shoes on. The sun is low and sets the forest afire with its last rays. I resume my walk; I have a strange sensation this was no dream.
“A great beast haunts this forest,” Nicky said, “they say it takes children.”
The glow of the roaring fire pit cast eerie shadows on his face.
“That’s a load of bull,” Chris answered, “can you prove it?”
“No, but can you prove it’s not haunted?”
“Ghosts and beasts don’t exist,” Chris pouted.
“Oh yeah, so how did Johnny disappear, huh? He vanished from his own room, like magic.”
“My dad says his father killed him and buried the body somewhere,” Jerry, a quiet, buck-toothed, freckled, big-eared boy, spoke up, “he says someday they’ll find him and people will know the truth.
“Your dad also says the moon landing is a fake and that Paul McCartney’s been dead for years,” Nicky retorted. Jerry shrugged.
The boys sat around the fire pit Nicky’s dad had lit for them. It was a warm evening, and the boys were camping out in Nicky’s backyard. They’d set up the tent and sat on camp chairs. Nicky gazed at the sky, the moon a mere sliver while Venus shone bright. Crickets chirped in the trees and the crackling fire made it seem they were somewhere in the wilderness; like Jack London, Nicky thought.
They loved camping at Nicky’s because his house was old and the backyard was unfenced. They could walk past the mown lawn and immerse themselves in the forest. Chris and Jerry lived in new houses, in new subdivisions with felled trees and fenced backyards.
Nicky poked at the fire, despite Dad’s orders.
“What do you think happened to Johnny?” Jerry whispered while Chris stuck a marshmallow on a stick.
“I dunno, maybe the beast took him,” Nicky mumbled through toasted marshmallow stickiness, “he lived down the road, ya know.”
They toasted more marshmallows.
“Dad knew Johnny,” Nicky said after a while, “they were friends.”
“Yeah, he says Johnny called him that day because he wanted to show him his new magic kit, but when he entered Johnny’s room, it was empty. They looked everywhere, but never found him.”
The boys talked and laughed and told ghost stories until the fire died. They put on their pajamas and were unrolling their sleeping bags when a rustle in the trees caught their attention.
“Who’s there?” Nicky called out; he’d heard footsteps.
Jerry trembled beside him; the ghost stories unsettling in the dark night. A crack of twigs and Chris whimpered. The forest was pitch black and the boys couldn’t see beyond their noses. Glowing embers remained of the once roaring campfire and the weak porch light did not illuminate the forest.
The ground shuddered beneath them and the boys huddled together, their gazes trying to pierce the thick darkness. A tall shadow and two glowing yellow eyes appeared in the sky. In the dim light of the gibbous moon, the boys beheld a head towering high above the trees. A dull growl shook the branches.
With one long collective scream, the boys burst through the back door, ran up the stairs and barged into Nicky’s room.
“What is it? Are you all right?” Dad ran in and found the boys huddled on Nicky’s bed.
“The beast! We saw the beast!”
The room filled with voices as they all talked at once, and Dad tried to calm them.
“Listen, guys!” He yelled over the hubbub, “The beast doesn’t exist, it’s just an urban legend. I’ve lived here all my life, I should know.”
“But it came out of the forest, I swear!”
“It’s just your imaginations running wild. Come, I’ll show you there’s no one out there.”
They slunk behind Dad. The fire was out and only the tent and the faint outline of the trees were visible in the pale porch light.
“There’s nothing there,” Dad assured them, “maybe it was a forest animal, and you scared it away with your screams.”
The boys admitted defeat; no glowing eyes, no giant face above the treetops.
“Can we sleep in my room?” Nicky asked while Dad fixed them glasses of warm milk.
The boys glanced at one another and nodded; no one felt like camping now. They wiped their milk mustaches off with their sleeves and shuffled upstairs. Dad walked out onto the porch and gazed towards the woods.
“You ain’t taking these boys, ya hear?” He commanded and stood with arms on his hips in his best Superman pose, “They ain’t for you!”
A grumble in the woods, but Dad stood his ground. He entered the house and locked the door. As he climbed the stairs, he wondered where Johnny was.
Soraya’s heart skipped when the Tarot reader flipped the card. The answer to her question lay in front of her, plain as day.
“The Three of Swords,” the psychic mused, “you need to decide, you are at a crossroads.”
How right she was, but it wasn’t a simple decision, like what skirt to wear, it meant ripping out her heart whatever she chose. She was at an impasse. Damned if she did, damned if she didn’t.
The Tarot reader flipped the remaining cards and continued with the reading, but Soraya’s gaze remained fixed on the Three of Swords and its cruel depiction of her life. Three swords crisscrossed a heart in a rainstorm. Three wounds, three people.
Soraya wiped a tear from her eye which the psychic noticed and stopped the reading. She observed Soraya for a moment, then gathered all the cards in the spread save the Three of Swords.
“You know, don’t you?” The psychic spoke, “You hoped the cards would tell you something different, but they’ve only confirmed your suspicions.”
Soraya nodded and sniffed.
“Your life path has swerved because of a man.”
Soraya nodded again; she wanted to speak, but feared spewing a deluge of sorrow upon this stranger, so she stifled a sob.
The woman tapped her between the eyes and the woman’s fingertip on her skin startled Soraya.
“You know what to do,” she smiled, “you’ve known for a while, but now it’s complicated.”
“Yes,” Soraya squeaked, “way more complicated.”
Soraya placed her hand on her tummy and the Tarot reader smiled, her wrinkled face beaming with kindness.
“New life is always welcome but you must decide who will be in it.”
“I don’t know what to do, I only suspect, but it’s so strong, I know I’m right.”
“You are not alone, you are never alone, and if you ask, you will receive an answer.”
Soraya thanked the woman and held out a wad of bills, but the woman shook her head and declined them. Soraya’s eyes filled with tears and she opened the door. She glanced back at the woman who was still smiling at her, and left.
She sat in her car; those three swords stabbed her with every heartbeat. Overhead the sky rumbled as tears fell on the steering wheel. She put her face in her hands and sobbed.
“Please help me,” she pleaded aloud, “please guide me.” But only the tap-tap-tap of the rain on the roof answered.
Soraya switched the ignition and began the long drive home. The heavy rain poured down and she couldn’t see the road despite the windshield wipers swaying at full speed.
Myra lay naked in bed while Aaron dressed; his wedding ring glinting in the electric light. They’d had sex through the raging storm, the thunder and lightning beating outside the window, as if trying to break in and smite them. Now and again, the ember of their guilt would rekindle, but they’d douse it with more sex. As the storm abated, Myra closed her eyes, exhausted and blissful.
A pang of pain on her chest jolted her, as if someone had rammed a sword through it. Tears she couldn’t control poured down her face and her mind screamed her sister’s name, Soraya! Soraya!
In an instant, the sensation passed and Myra perceived a strange sense of loss, like something gone forever.
Myra reached for her phone and dialed Soraya’s number. Aaron’s phone rang while she waited for the call to connect. The insistent tone of the busy signal pounded in her brain.
Aaron glanced at the display and grinned the devilish grin that tickled Myra’s lust. He showed her the display with Soraya’s picture and winked.
“Hi honey, I’ll be home soon, I promise.”
A knot formed in Myra’s throat as Aaron’s face fell. He slowly lowered his arm and let the phone drop on the carpet.
“Soraya,” he muttered, “the storm… Car accident… She’s dead.”
Danny loved the monkey bars. Every day at recess he would climb on them, then cross them back and forth with his feet dangling and only the strength of his arms. His favorite part was to hook his knees on the crossbars and let himself hang upside down.
The world looked very different upside down. He recognized his classmates, but it always took him a moment, and he thought it strange how the bullies and meanies seemed nice and the pretty girls turned ugly. Maybe the upside-down shows you the opposite of what is, thought Danny, or maybe it shows you the truth.
Danny would hang until the recess monitor demanded he right himself, or until the blood rushed to his head and his brain thumped. He feared the throb which the latter produced because it blurred his vision and muffled his hearing, almost like being underwater.
Robbie bet him he couldn’t hang all recess. Danny knew the headache would come before the end, but for Robbie’s cupcake, he’d do it.
The recess bell rang, and the boys beelined for the monkey bars. They glanced towards the monitor and smirked. Mr. Stanford was on duty; he was old, and he liked to sit on a bench with his eyes closed.
“I’m not sleeping, I’m just gazing inside myself,” he’d say, “and if you bother those girls again, you’re off to detention faster than you can say ‘Jack Robinson’.” The offending party would slink away, perplexed at Mr. Stanford’s uncanny perspicacity.
Danny climbed on the monkey bars, crossed to the middle, lifted his legs and hooked his knees and ankles on the crossbars.
Robbie counted down, “Three… two… one!”
Danny lowered his head and gazed at the dirt beneath him; a butterfly flitted by and alighted on a pebble. Robbie’s smiling face seemed like a happy frown.
Soon, his cheeks puffed up and the first throb announced itself. He couldn’t swallow and his ears got hotter and hotter. Danny imagined his whole head blowing up like a balloon. He took a deep breath as the thumping began. Here goes. His vision clouded, and the world narrowed. At that moment, he would right himself, but for the sake of that creamy decadent cupcake, he hung on.
The upside-down world turned red and tinted Robbie’s dim and worried expression. Robbie moved his lips, but Danny heard nothing. Now he was underwater, suspended in the atmosphere, floating in space.
The ground cracked and opened. Fingers and hands dug their way out of the muddy, grassless dirt. Golden-haired ringlets emerged, followed by blue eyes and a creamy complexion. The girl frightened him; he distinguished the bone and sockets of her skull beneath her skin. Danny remembered why he hated this moment, he’d seen her once before and she’d scared him.
The girl, dressed in a pink poodle skirt and white blouse, bobby socks and saddle shoes, smiled at him and touched him. Danny screamed. The world spun and blackened.
“Danny, wake up!” Mr. Stanford’s voice came from far away.
Danny opened his eyes and focused on Robbie’s and Mr. Stanford’s worried expressions.
“Are you okay?” Robbie peeped.
“I saw her,” Danny whispered, his voice hollow in his ears.
“The girl, I think she’s buried here.”
“I swear, Mr. Stanford, she wore a pink poofy skirt and her hair was all done up in curls and held back with a pink ribbon, like Goldilocks.”
Mr. Stanford went from worried to scared and Danny realized he knew about her.
“Grandpa told me a girl fell and broke her neck many years ago,” Robbie whispered and Mr. Stanford gave a slight, almost imperceptible nod.
“Was that her?” Danny asked, but in an instant, the fright had passed and Mr. Stanford composed himself, saying nothing. He helped Danny stand and sent him to the nurse.
As Robbie led Danny away, he glanced back; Mr. Stanford leaned on the monkey bars wiping tears from his eyes. The ghost girl stood beside him, shimmering in the hot day. She waved at Danny and vanished.