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The scraggly mesquite tree creaked in the soft breeze blowing through the open window and billowing the voile curtains.

“It’s a peculiar tree,” the hired arborist had told Daisy and Paul, “It’s at least one-hundred-and-fifty years old, and though bare, it’s very much alive and healthy. It has no plague or disease, yet, you say it doesn’t regrow its leaves?”

Daisy nodded, “We bought the house at least three years ago, and we’ve never seen a blossom or a leaf on that tree. I love how its twisted branches spread out like a bony canopy.”

Paul shrugged, but the expert had agreed.

“Yes’m, there’s a certain melancholic beauty to it. My advice: enjoy its spidery shade, there’s life in the old dog yet.”

Though the sun shone and the cool breeze blew through the backyard, Daisy and Paul spent the morning in the living room, measuring spaces and pondering whether a new oaken sideboard would fit under the windows that looked out at the tree.

Paul raised his cellphone to his face, “Let’s see if this A.R. app works.”

“A.R.?” asked Daisy.

“Augmented reality,” he answered, “it can overlay a picture of the sideboard we want onto our room, so we can see if it fits before we buy it.”

Daisy nodded, impressed. She glanced over Paul’s shoulder as he pointed the cellphone camera at the windows. She smiled when the image of the sideboard appeared in her living room while the skeletal branches of her beloved tree peeked through the frame.

Paul said, “I think it would look good, don’t you?”

And Daisy was about to agree when she noticed a shadow pass over the image.

“What’s that?”

Paul turned his eyes back to the phone screen. In it, the living room walls disappeared, and the tree stood in leafy pomp, outlined by a blazing firmament.

“Huh,” Paul muttered, and lifted his eyes from the screen.

The warm, yellow sunshine of midday poured through the windows and onto the gray-green vinyl-plank floor, reflecting off the cream-colored walls. On the phone screen, the tree stood on a lonely grassland beneath a fiery red sky.

“It is the same tree,” Daisy said, “I know every tangled bough, but it’s blooming!”

The screen flickered, and silhouettes approached the tree. The couple distinguished a group of rough-and-tumble men on horseback. A man with arms tied behind his back stumbled behind them as one rider pulled him along by a rope.

“It’s a posse!” Paul exclaimed, and they watched transfixed as it reached the tree. 

One man slung a noose over a high branch. The others pulled the tethered man forward and placed the noose around his neck. Then, they tugged on the rope, and the bound man flew upwards. The laughing and cheering bandits tied the rope to the tree trunk, while the hanged man dangled and jerked from the noose. 

The sun dipped on the horizon; the hanged man grew still and swung back and forth. The posse mounted their horses and rode away. The sun shot out its last rays over the empty grassland, and twilight settled over the extinguished life. A mournful wind howled and wailed, blowing away all the leaves from the hanging tree. 

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Walpurgis Night

Jenna sat by the window of her new, old bedroom in her grandmother’s house. Two fat tears hovered on her eyelids, then rolled down her cheeks. Her parents had moved into the house soon after she died, and those tears were not just over Oma’s death (her presence still lingered over the house), but also over the big change that came with the big move.

Jenna missed the many friends she left behind in her old town and regretted her status as the new girl. She had not yet found her footing and her place at her new school.

“Kids are meaner here,” she told Mom, “they pull away as soon as they find out I’m related to Oma. It’s not like Hexer is a common name around here, I can’t deny my relation.”

Mom sighed, “I’m sorry, honey, but we had to move after the company downsized and let Dad go.”

“I know, Mom,” Jenna replied, and curled her lip over her braces, a gesture now so common Mom wondered if it would stay after the braces came off Jenna’s teeth.

“But why do they hate Oma? They say she’s a jinx.”

“Because she was German, and lonely, and never spoke English well, so people never understood her. They saw a war bride, someone who used your grandpa as a ticket out of poverty and misery. To them, she was an enchantress who charmed her way into his life and his money.”

“But that’s not true,” Jenna exclaimed, “they loved one another, didn’t they?”

“Oh yes, they loved each other very much,” Mom answered, “but people only see what they want to see. We know she was loving and kind, but no one here gave her a chance.”

A lump lodged in Jenna’s throat, “I miss her. I miss her stories.”


“Sure, she used to tell me stories all the time.”

Dad spoke German to Jenna, and it facilitated the relationship between Jenna and Oma. It made Mom grateful to know Jenna had been emotionally close—if not physically—to her only grandmother, having grown up never knowing her own grandparents herself. 

“What stories did she tell you?”

“She loved to talk about her childhood, her town, and her family. She spoke about the big family gatherings, and the dance halls,” Jenna’s eyes sparkled, then darkened a little when she continued, “although these last few years, she would tell me about witches convening on Walpurgisnacht. She said she saw them through her window, dancing in the moonlight.”

Mom pursed her lips at Jenna’s last remark, “Remember, Oma had senile dementia for a long time, so you should take her stories with a grain of salt.”

Jenna smiled and nodded, and returned to her room to sit by the window and watch the night fall over the meadow behind the house. She opened the window and let the spring breeze waft through the room. The stars winked at her as they appeared one by one, and the moon rose above the treetops, casting its cool glow over the meadow as it bid farewell to April with full pomp and circumstance.

“Why are you crying?” Oma’s voice floated through Jenna’s mind.

“Because I miss you, Omi,” Jenna said, and the wind rustled through the trees.

“I am here,” Oma’s whisper swept through the meadow, borne on the wind puffing through the tall grass. 

Whirlwinds of leaves blew across the silvery moonlight. Mist descended from the mountain and billowed through the forest and into the meadow like long and slender will-o’-the-wisps twirling and swaying to the melody of the gusting, fragrant wind.

The moonlight caught the mist-tendrils and shone on them with an eerie, yet playful, glow. They might have been graceful girls dancing naked in the moonlight. 

Jenna smiled; Oma’s witches on Walpurgisnacht.

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Milk and Honey

The heavy wooden door cracked and moaned as it inched open on its rusty hinges. A cool draft blew through the yard as the wrought-iron gate, squeaking and banging, swung in the wind. Dead leaves rustled and danced on the overgrown grass, fluttering towards the last rays of the setting sun. Dusk cast an eerie, blue gloom over the abandoned house, and Edgar shivered. 

The prior night’s dream agglutinated in his brain like dense honey, as vivid now as it had been the night before, and almost every night before that, since he could remember. It started in his early childhood—now a tangled mess of vagrant memories—and Edgar had since learned it foretold yet another move, another city, another change. His parents, both free-flowing hippies, never settled down, and at the drop of a hat would up and move their child miles and miles and miles away. Every time the dream visited Edgar, he knew change was imminent, and the dream would not leave until he had installed himself in a new house, in a new town, and a new school. The dream had given him respite during his stable and constant college years, but it had returned in full blast.

In the dream, Edgar stands by a window in the House of Usher — as he described it—gloomy, dark and ramshackle. The window overlooks a courtyard, just as abandoned and forgotten as the house itself. In the middle of the courtyard, between the cracked and lumpy cobblestone, sits a large fountain with a wide round base and three tiers of a baroque pillar stacked upon one another. Each section has an ornate basin, which gets smaller as the pillar rises. A phoenix crowns the fountain, its wings spread wide as its tail winds around the pillar, down to the topmost basin. Silky nectar flows from it and shines in the sunlight. The phoenix whispers, “Come find me.”

The dream’s frequency had abated in recent years until weeks ago, when Edgar received a summons from a lawyer. That very night, the dream exploded in his brain, and it blazed night after night. 

Bewildered, Edgar attended the appointment.

“You are the only remaining heir,” the lawyer said, as he read the last will and testament of a long-forgotten uncle, “Your uncle’s finances had dwindled, and the house fell into disrepair, but now it belongs to you.”

Now, Edgar stood on the doorstep of this abandoned house as it creaked open with the burden of years weighing down an old man. 

Edgar stepped through the threshold. Twilight glimmered through the dirty windows, and Edgar’s heart skipped at the ghosts waiting for him inside every room. He chided himself when he realized they were only pieces of furniture covered by sheets. Edgar walked through the chilly and dusty rooms; shadows crept on the walls. He marveled at the high and decorated ceilings, and at the baroque cornices. He approached a tall casement window; its shabby drapes billowing in a mysterious breeze.

He glanced out of it and gasped. The window overlooked the courtyard, and in its middle, lit by the rising moon, stood his dream-fountain with its crowning phoenix. But this fountain was as dry as a desert; its magnificence lost in its abandonment, its phoenix cracked by time.

Edgar opened the casement window, and the soft scent of honeysuckle wafted into the room, though in the moonlight, he distinguished only skeleton branches and gnarled, bony bramble that crawled over the ground like spiders.

“Hello,” the wind whispered, as it blew around Edgar.

“Hello!” Edgar replied, and the sound of his voice echoed through the courtyard.

A soft rumble shuddered through the house and the fountain gurgled and bubbled to life as silvery water sprang from its interior. The phoenix-wind whooshed again and awakened the fireplace across the room, which sparked a warm and comforting blaze. The room flooded with light, and Edgar saw it as it had been in its heyday: glowing, beautiful, and cozy.

The dream that had been with him so long burst inside his brain and oozed a warm welcome through his body. This milky feeling tasted like honey, and Edgar knew that after all this time, he was home.

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St. Elmo’s Fire

Esther sat on the hotel’s terrace overlooking the ocean. The soft sea breeze cooled Esther’s sunburned cheeks. The ocean mumbled a lullaby beneath her as the waves lapped on the pebbled beach. It sounded like a baby’s rattle, and a lump formed in Esther’s throat at the memory of their baby-that-was-never-to-be.

Arthur caught the lump and smoothed it away by stroking her hand in his, like water smooths down jagged rocks. Their eyes met, and both understood the pain lurking behind their irises — his blue, hers brown.

“This was a good day,” Arthur said.

Esther nodded, “Oh yes, I could stay here forever.”

Moonless and starless night fell, and only the dim terrace lights burning behind them offered comfort from the encroaching darkness. They sat on Adirondack chairs facing the water, which was now a black mirror that reflected nothing, like a void in the earth surrounded by ghostly cliffs.

Arthur sipped his whiskey, while Esther let the playful breeze tousle her hair.

Arthur cleared his throat to get her attention, “What’s that?”

Esther opened her eyes.

In the cove, three blue lights flickered, no, danced upon the water. They snaked and glimmered like tongues of fire playfully devouring lumber. They frolicked in a smoky meander on the still and mirror-like waves.

“I wonder…” Esther stated.

“I think it’s Saint Elmo’s fire,” Arthur said.

“Beg pardon?”

“It’s an electrical weather phenomenon that appears on pointy structures, like masts and spires, when lightning strikes are imminent. It looks like blue flames.”

“Do you think we ought to go inside?”

“I don’t know,” Arthur replied, “the sky is cloudy, but it doesn’t feel like rain. What intrigues me is, what is catching the electricity?”

“A ship, perhaps.”

Arthur doubted, “There were no ships at sunset, and there are no ship lights.”

The waiter approached and asked if they wanted anything else.

Arthur turned to the man, “No, but you should warn that ship.”

The waiter looked puzzled; Arthur pointed towards the water.

“That’s Saint Elmo’s fire,” he said, “and that ship is in danger of being struck by lightning.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but there are no ships on this part of the island. It’s impossible to approach this cove from the ocean. A terrible death of jagged rock lies beneath the waves. Many ships have sunk here, too far for rescue from the shore. Not even a rowboat dares enter this cove.”

Esther gazed at the man, confused.

“Then what’s out there?” Arthur asked, “What’s causing those lights?”

“St. Elmo’s Fire on the masts, like you said, sir, but that ship now lies in its watery grave. The lights appear on darkest nights, but lightning struck it centuries ago.” 

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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.”