A father’s secret

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Sabine watched stone faced as they lowered her father’s casket into the grave. All around her women wailed and men cried silently. She had no tears left. She’d cried them all during his long illness. Beside her, her sister Analiese sobbed into her husband’s shoulder.

When the funeral was over, the two sisters returned to the house Sabine had shared with her father over the past year. She was the one who’d taken care of him, tending him through the final phase of his illness. As soon as they walked through the door, Analiese shed all pretense of grief.

“So where’s his will?” she demanded, turning to Sabine.

“It’s with Uncle Phillip, who’s also the executor of the estate,” Sabine said. “We have to leave.”

“Leave? Why?” Analiese asked, glaring at her older sister.

“It was a stipulation the police were made aware of by Uncle Phillip,” Sabine said. “You aren’t allowed to take anything. All I can take are a week’s worth of clothing, my wallet, and some feminine products should my period start during the week we’re banned from the house.”

There was a loud knock on the door. Sabine turned around and opened it. Two police officers stood there. “Hello Sabine,” one of them said in a gentle voice.

“Hello Chris,” she said. “We just got here. Let me get my things and I’ll leave.”

“Okay.” He glared at Analiese until she and her husband left, muttering profanities all the way.

Sabine shoved what she needed into a duffel bag and headed out, stopping long enough to let Chris’ partner Bailey check to make sure she wasn’t taking anything she wasn’t allowed to. She was given the all clear and left.

She went to a motel and checked in, letting them know she’d be there for a week. Just as she got to the room she got a text from her Uncle Phillip. Your sister is already harassing me.

You expected anything different? Sabine sent back.

No. I just wasn’t planning on having to deal with her so soon, he replied.

That’s Analiese for you, Sabine sent back.

You take care of yourself, Sabine. It’ll all be over soon and you can get on with your life, Phillip sent.

I’ll be grateful for that, Sabine said. Thanks Uncle Phillip.

You’re welcome, sweetie. The texts stopped coming.

Exactly one week later, Sabine received a text. It wasn’t from her uncle, but from her aunt. He’s at the house. You should go there now. He told me to text you since he forgot before he started driving. There was a brief pause and then a second text came in. He also conveniently “forgot” to tell Analiese. I’m supposed to wait for an hour and then text her.

Sabine smiled, the first in a long time. Thanks Aunt Olivia. She once again shoved everything in the duffel and headed out. She paused long enough to pay for her room before returning to her father’s house.

Phillip was waiting for her. “I know this wait has been hard on you, Sabine,” he said, giving his niece a hug.

“Not as hard as watching what I did for the past year, Uncle Phillip,” Sabine aid.

Phillip nodded. “That’s very true. Tony was my brother, and I loved him dearly, but I think he relied on you too heavily.”

“I only did what any responsible, loving daughter would,” Sabine said. Her voice cracked. “And I loved him so much.”

“I know, Sabine. I know,” Phillip said, holding her close.

Analiese arrived an hour and a half later. “How did you get here before me?” she demanded, looking at Sabine who was sitting on the hood of her car.

“I didn’t go that far away,” Sabine said.

Analiese glared at their uncle. “So who gets what?”

“Well, as expected, the house and everything in it, Tony’s money, his cars, and pretty much the rest of his estate goes to Sabine, since she’s the only one who gave a rat’s ass about him over the past ten years,” Phillip said, smirking as his younger niece let out a shriek. “He did leave you something though, Analiese.”

“What?” she demanded.

“This picture,” Phillip said, pulling out a photo. “If you can name who she is.”

Analiese snatched the photo and threw it to the ground. “You can all go to hell,” she snarled. She and her husband stormed off.

“May I see the photo, Uncle Phillip?” Sabine asked.

“Of course, since it’s yours now,” Phillip said with a laugh. He picked it up and handed it to her.

She inspected the picture. It was of a woman in partial profile. Her hair was long and full of loose curls, much like Sabine’s own hair. She had gorgeous blue eyes, but the most striking thing was the full lips, highlighted by bright red lipstick. She wasn’t sure if the woman was naked or wearing something that just left her shoulders bare, but you couldn’t see anything below them, so she didn’t worry about it.

She frowned. The face was familiar. She saw it when she looked in the mirror every morning, with small variations that came from her father. She looked up at her uncle. “I’d say this was our mother, but mom was a red head who always kept her hair short and permed. She also wasn’t this beautiful.”

Phillip smiled gently. “She’s not Analiese’s mother, Sabine. She’s your mother. Carolyn was Tony’s second wife. That is Bethany Cooper-Harper, one of the kindest, most elegant women I’ve ever known.”

Sabine pressed the picture to her chest. “Will you tell me about her, Uncle Phillip?”

“All you need to know is written in both her journals and your father’s, and they’re up in the attic,” Phillip said. “I know you’ll enjoy reading those.”

Sabine looked down at the picture again. “This is worth more to me than the entire estate.” Phillip put a hand on his niece’s shoulder and kept it there as she stared into the face of a woman she’d never known.

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A father’s love

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Elena grinned as she danced around the living room, the silk dress moving against her skin. “Dad, you are awesome,” she said.

Peter Wilkins smiled at his eighteen year old daughter. People often wondered why a man like him had adopted sweet blind child back when she was only five years old. Especially when he himself was blind and had to be helped by his wife Angela. But both Angela and Peter fell in love with Elena and wouldn’t let anyone tell them that they’d made a mistake.

Angela had died when Elena was thirteen and everyone was sure Peter would send Elena back into the foster care system. He refused. Peter hired someone to cook and clean for them, and continued to live in the small house with his brilliant, musically inclined, little girl.

“When is your date supposed to be here?” Peter asked.

“At seven,” Elena said. Both of them listened as their antique grandfather clock chimed the hour.

“Any minute then,” Peter said with a laugh.

Elena stopped moving. “I’d look out the window, but I don’t think it would do me any good.”

“Probably not, faerie child,” Peter said. “I doubt you’d see much, given how dark it is.” Both of them snickered. Their blindness was a constant source of amusement to them.

Someone knocked on the door. Peter heard the Southern drawl of their housekeeper, a fiery tempered woman named Greta, as she spoke to whoever it was. He heard two sets of footsteps. “Pete, this string bean says he’s Elena’s date to prom,” she said as she led someone into the room.

“Hi Jake,” Elena said breathlessly.

“Hi Elena.”

Pete frowned. There was something in the boy’s voice he didn’t like. Something cold. Elena must have heard it too. “Is something wrong, Jake?”

“You didn’t tell me your dad was a black man,” Jake said.

“I didn’t know he was,” Elena said.

“Come on, Elena. You expect me to believe that you didn’t know you were living with a nigger?” Jake asked, his voice full of disgust.

“Jake, I’m blind. No one ever told me, so how am I supposed to know?” Elena asked.

“Our date is off, Elena. I won’t go out with a girl who’s father is dirty like that.” Jake stormed out of the room. A few seconds later the others heard the door slam.

“Greta, is my dad black?” Elena asked.

“Yeah,” Greta drawled. “He is. You’re white. I’m somewhere in between. It don’t matter. You two love each other. That Jake’s the filth, not you and not your dad.”

Peter heard the rustling of the dress and the thwump as his daughter landed on their couch. He knew she was crying. Peter maneuvered his way through the furniture and sat down beside her.

“Listen faerie child, as much as it hurts, there are a lot of people like Jake in this world. There’s a lot of hate. We’ve been blessed with not experiencing much of it. But it’s out there, and as you go out on your own, you’re going to have to deal with more of it,” Peter said.

Elena sniffed. “I wish mama was here.”

Peter reached his arm out and wrapped it around his daughter. “So do I, faerie child. So do I.” He held her until she finished crying.

“Come on, Elena,” Greta said. “I’ll help you get out of that.”

“Thanks Greta,” Elena said. Peter heard the two women leave the room.

“Ah Angela, you’d have skinned that boy alive for breaking Elena’s heart without even touching him,” Peter muttered. “They’d never have found the body either. I do miss that magic of yours.” He held out his hand and tried to summon the energy that had once coursed through him, hoping to bring up enough of it to send a curse after the bastard who’d broken his daughter’s heart.

As usual, he felt a faint tingle in his fingers, but that was it. A spike of pain in his right temple forced him to stop. He sighed and let his hand fall to his lap. Elena’s blindness was a birth defect. His was the result of a spell gone wrong, and the physical pain that came from it would last him a lifetime.

Not all mist conceals

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Diyar waited impatiently for his twin. “If you keep dragging your feet, I’m leaving you behind. You made me miss it last time. I’m not taking that chance this year,” he shouted.

Sivan staggered out of the decontamination chamber. His long black hair was a mess, sticking out from his head like the tentacles of a partunial lagoniva. “I don’t know why you’re so excited about this. You’ve seen it before,” he grumbled.

“When we were children,” Diyar said. “We were barely old enough to remember. And when it came around again when we were teenagers, our parents wouldn’t go without you. What was it you told me when I tried to get you to move faster?”

Sivan sighed. “I told you the only way I was going to see some shelling sunrise was if you drugged me and stuffed me in the cargo shell of the hover.”

Diyar nodded. “Now, you have five minutes. I’d rather have you with me, especially since you promised Briska and Sirin you’d be there.” He grinned as his brother spluttered. The twin sisters who dated the two brothers interchangeably were hard to please, and if Sivan went back on his word, the two of them would make him pay for it for a long time.

Five minutes later, the black haired and brown eyed twins left their underground apartment and went through a series of tunnels lined with electromagnets that granted their vehicle the ability to fly until they reached the main landing bay of the Geliyen settlement on Protoxia VII. It was kept sealed and guarded against the residents most of the time. Only once every fifteen years was it opened to the public, and the huge ships stored inside prepped for flight once more.

Briska must have been watching for them because she appeared shortly after they parked their hover. “You two were almost late,” she said, her charcoal colored eyes flashing angrily.

“My fault, Bris,” Sivan said. “I worked late and overslept.”

Briska snorted. “You ‘worked late,'” she said, making a motion with her hand to show she didn’t believe him. “You were out at the bar again.”

“No Bris,” Diyar said. “He really was working late. I had to go pick him up because the public transit stopped running two hours before he got off.”

Briska opened her mouth. Sirin appeared and elbowed her. “Bris, I work for the same company as Sivan, remember? He was still there after I left, and I caught the last public transport,” she said.

“Let’s go,” Sivan said, catching hold of Sirin’s hand. “We’re going to miss the transport, and I want to make sure we can all sit together.” He dragged Sirin along. Diyar and Briska followed. Diyar glanced at Briska out of the corner of his eye. She was not one for unwanted physical touch, and right now it looked like she wasn’t interested in taking his arm.

They got to the massive ship and climbed aboard. They found a long bench that seated four and settled in. They fastened their harnesses and waited for the ship to fill up. It did and about an hour after they arrived it lifted off.

Diyar watched as the dark browns, grays, and reds of the stone surrounding the city passed the windows. There was an excited buzz in the conversations going on around him. He saw several young children tugging on their parents’ arms and asking what they were going to see. The parents just told them to be quiet and they’d find out soon enough.

Eventually the ship broke through the crust of the planet. On the surface, as if preserved in some giant museum, stood the ancient cities that had once held Diyar’s ancestors. The first residents of Protoxia VII built the towering structures they now saw, drawing on their memories of their homeworld. But something went terribly wrong and they’d been driven  underground. That had been nearly a thousand years earlier, and their descendants still lived in the subterranean territories carved out a millennium ago.

“Look,” Briska said, her breath catching in her throat. Light flickered off the shimmering powder on her olive skin.

Everyone peered out the windows. The cloud cover that was a perpetual drain on the solar generators was parting even as they watched. The glorious golden sun poured light down on the mist shrouded ghost city. No pictures were taken. It was forbidden. No drawings were made. Again, it was forbidden. All you were allowed to have were your memories, and Diyar stored his against the coming gray time.

Too soon the clouds covered the shining orb and the ships made their way back underground. “Do you think we’ll ever see it again?” Sirin asked wistfully.

“I don’t know about you two,” Diyar said. “I know I won’t. I’m 34. I’ve only got eleven years left.”

“Can’t you file for an extension?” Briska asked.

“I’m not a good enough candidate for that,” Diyar said. “I’m just going to enjoy the years I have left and let my life end when they say it does.”

 

Fire and ice

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Rin stood behind her father, a hand on his shoulder. King Alaric, master of the Northern Kingdom, reached up absently from time to time and patted it. Rin was not pleased she’d been selected out of all of her father’s children to accompany him to the annual meeting of the rulers of the elemental kingdoms.

Tensions were running high between the frozen North and the fiery South again. The only thing preventing them from declaring war on each other was the fact that the rocky East and the windswept West blocked their way.

“There can be no peace between us unless Alaric gives us something of value to prove he intends to keep the treaty you’re offering,” Queen Keahi said, slamming her bony fist onto the table. Sparks flew from her fingers. “I see no reason why the South should give everything.”

“I never said it was all on you, Keahi,” King Fihr, ruler of the East, said. His rather bland expression showed he was used to her outbursts. Rin’s hand trembled. The Southern queen’s anger frightened her. Once again Alaric placed his hand over hers. “Alaric will be required to make payment in kind.”

“What do you want from the both of us?” Alaric asked.

“Keahi, we asked that you bring the son that was your favorite among your children excluding your heir,” Queen Tuuli said, her smile not reaching her watery gray eyes. “Alaric, we asked the same of you, save it be a daughter that came to this meeting.”

Rin shook as the words sank in. Alaric stiffened. “I will not give my son in marriage to that Northern slut,” Keahi screamed, leaping up and throwing her chair across the room.

“If you do not abide by the treaty we have laid out, then you leave us no choice but to invade the Inferno Realm,” Fihr said. “While Alaric doesn’t have the ability to deal with you, Tuuli and I do.”

“You’d side with him over me?” Keahi demanded.

“You are the one who instigated this hostility, Keahi,” Tuuli said. “Now, sign the treaty or witness the destruction of the Inferno Realm.”

Keahi turned to the young man she’d brought with her. “Pyrrhus, what do you have to say about this?”

Rin looked into the amber eyes of the man she was being forced to marry. They were far more innocent than she’d been led to believe she would see on anyone from the Inferno Realm. Flames flickered across his skin. He smiled. “I’ve heard of the intelligence of Princess Rin and I’d love to test it. If she is a scholar as I am, then I do believe we can at least pass our time reasonably well together,” he said. His voice held none of the crackling brokenness of his mother’s.

“Rin?” Alaric asked. “What do you say?”

Rin bit her lip. “I am a scholar, so I know unions such as this are not entirely without merit,” she said. “Nor are they as rare as they might seem. Peace is often won by bargains like this one.” She kept her eyes on Pyrrhus’ face. “If a place can be found where I won’t die because of the heat and he won’t because of the cold, then I will agree to this.”

“My requirements are the same,” Pyrrhus said. He held Rin’s gaze, almost challenging her. The fear subsided a little. If he was a scholar, perhaps they’d have something to talk about as they got to know each other. If they learned more about each other, there might be a chance they could become friends. A life beyond friendship was more than Rin could see at the moment, but she would allow herself to be open to anything.

“The decision has been made,” Fihr said. “Alaric, Keahi, sign the treaty. Rin, Pyrrhus, there is a valley deep within my domain near enough to the North that it holds the needed chill but is kept warm by hot springs run over the rocks and beneath the surface of the ground. There are specific areas where it is so hot that Rin, you would be wise not to enter. Just as there are places where you shouldn’t go, Pyrrhus.”

“You will be able to send messages out and ask for whatever you want, be it food, clothes, or even books, parchment, pens, furniture, and blankets,” Tuuli said. “The only thing you will not be allowed is contact with your families. Can you accept that?”

“I can,” Pyrrhus said.

“Rin, can you?” Tuuli asked. Rin swallowed hard and then nodded. Alaric and Keahi signed the treaty, Keahi fuming. Tuuli pulled the document over between herself and Fihr. “It’s done.”  She motioned with her hand and four of her guards stepped forward. “Escort Their Highnesses to the waiting area. We will escort them to their new home shortly.” Rin gave her father one last, desperate hug before allowing herself to be led away.

Nature is magical

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Eldan stared up at the apartment tower. It stretched so high into the air that the ever present smog obscured the top. “This has to stop,” he muttered.

“Yeah, and what are you going to do about it? You’re an apprentice mage with no talent.” the sneering voice behind him came from his long time rival, a journeyman mage named Cerridwyn. She was loud, brash, and took great joy in reminding him that she’d only been a part of the Guild for two years and already outranked him while he’d been there for five and was still struggling to do something to gain the notice of the Masters.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” he snapped. He fingered the tiny seeds in his pouch. He’d spent the better part of the last month hunting for them. They were rare and hard to find, and he’d gotten into trouble for using his free time on “frivolous pursuits” rather than practicing his magic on more than one occasion.

Slowly he drew them out. He held them in his cupped hands and began whispering the words of the incantation he’d created just for this moment. A breeze began to blow around him, stirring up dust and debris. The scarf over his mouth and the sunglasses that wrapped around his regular glasses kept everything out of his eyes. Behind him he heard Cerridwyn cough as she got a face full of the junk from the sidewalk.

He waited as he felt the power building. When it reached its crescendo he tossed the seeds into the air, speaking the last few words of the spell out loud. The tiny specks began to glow and adhered themselves to every floor of the apartments, carrying themselves up to the smog covered layers as well. For a moment nothing happened.

“Ha, useless as ever,” Cerridwyn said, her voice rough from all the coughing.

Eldan’s heart fell. Had he truly failed?

Then he saw  it. A glimmer of green against the pale wall. Slowly more of the same living color appeared. Plants wrapped around balconies, clung to cracks in the surface of the building, and spread out. They didn’t overgrow the areas they landed in, looking like someone had purposefully planted them rather than some random creation of nature.

He glanced up towards the top. The smog was already thinner as the ones at the top did their job and sucked in the polluted air. Eldan smiled. It was working.

“Well done, Eldan,” a gravelly voice said. He looked over his shoulder to see Master Eadric Browne standing there, along with a handful of others. “We felt the magic and came to investigate. It seems you were not wasting your time after all.”

“You said when I found my passion the magic would find me,” Eldan said. He gestured to the plants. “Nature is what I love. Seeing things grow, finding ways of fixing what mankind has done to our planet, that is what I prefer doing.”

“Then that is what we will focus on for you from now on,” Eadric said, smiling. “You have earned your journeyman status, and will now begin your more in depth training with one of the Nature mages. As soon as we can coax one into the city to claim you.” There were a few chuckles at that as Eldan was led past a spluttering Cerridwyn towards the squat warehouse looking structure that housed the Mage Guild.

Fatal adventure

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Ollie grinned at Sebastian as they walked out of the airship. “This is a grand adventure we’ve found ourselves on, eh, Seb?” he asked.

Sebastian grunted. “I’m not sure I like this, Ollie,” the older man said. “We know nothing about these people, or this place. Are we even safe here?”

“Most likely not,” Ollie said, waving his hand. “But that’s part of the thrill.” He saw his cousin’s expression. “Oh do lighten up, Seb. I doubt our fellow passengers mean us any harm. It’ll be this new territory that might cause us some trouble.”

A grizzled man in a dark blue uniform stepped up on a platform. He looked old, but the heavy wool and linen clothing covered a rock hard body that even Ollie had to admire. “Okay then me lads and lassies,” he said, a broad accent causing some people to lean in closer, squinting, as if that would help them understand him better. “The quest is simple. Survive long enough to find something new and interesting to bring back. We got eyes everywhere, so no attacking other adventurers. There’s plenty of beasties and other strange things to keep you busy.”

“We got your gear here,” a flat chested red haired woman said in a monotone voice. She gestured to piles secured in packs with name cards attached to them. “Collect your possessions now.”

There was a scramble as everyone picked up their things. Ollie’s was heavier than he remembered. He checked it and saw that a tent had been attached to the bottom of the rucksack. He glanced over at Sebastian. Judging from what he was pushing around in his, they’d given him more food for the two of them.

“All right me brave ones,” the old man said. “You’ve got three days to get something and return. Else we’ll go hunting for you.” His smile turned sinister. “You won’t like that one bit. No you won’t.” He brightened. “Off with you.”

“I don’t like that look on his face when he said they’d go hunting for us if we didn’t come back on time,” Sebastian said.

“Me either, Seb,” Ollie admitted. “So let’s make sure we aren’t late.” Sebastian nodded. Ollie pulled down his goggles and made sure his gun was at the ready. The two of them set off into the forest.

The two young men searched for a day and a half, but found nothing of interest. “We’d have to go even deeper in, but then we’d be late,” Sebastian said.

“I know, Seb,” Ollie said. He pulled off his helmet and goggles and wiped his sweaty face. The heat was oppressive, even here under the massive trees. “But we can’t go back empty handed either. We’ll be out the money for the trip and lose out on the cash prize. I say we go a couple more hours in. We can make up for it by waking up earlier and leaving our camp earlier in the morning.”

“If you’re sure we’ll be able to do that, Ollie,” Sebastian said.

“I know we can,” Ollie said, his confidence returning. The cousins moved on into the forest.

It was getting darker when Sebastian spotted the flash of color. “Ollie, what’s that?” he asked in a whisper.

Ollie looked where he was pointing. “Don’t know,” he said, his voice filled with excitement. “Let’s see if we can catch it.”

“It” turned out to be a bird with bright plumage, and was surprisingly easy to get into the cage. They turned around and started heading back to the edge of the trees. They walked until it was too dark to see before going to bed.

Ollie roused his cousin before dawn and they started walking again. “Ollie, don’t we have to be back by sundown?” Sebastian asked after they’d been going for several hours.

“Yes we do,” Ollie said. “We should be almost there. We’re following the same path we came in on. Look, there’s our flags. And the little markers I put in to differentiate so we didn’t end up going in circles.”

“That’s what I wanted to tell you, Ollie. This is the one you put down at the edge of the forest. It’s been running parallel to us for the last hour.”

Ollie laughed nervously. “You’re wrong, Seb. Paths can’t just freeze you in place.”

“This one has,” Sebastian said. “What do we do now?”

Ollie looked around. A glimmer among the trees made him look to the west. The sky was the color of coral and the turquoise sea. The sun was going down. “We have to find the edge of the trees,” he said. The two men started running.

Trees and bushes seemed to part in front of them, but Ollie noticed they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Finally they stopped, chests heaving. It was pitch black in the forest. Night had fallen.

A sing song voice echoed through the darkness. “Come out, come out, wherever you are. Come out so I can kill you.” The cousins dropped the cage containing their prize and ran in a different direction, looking for somewhere to hide.

A soldier’s letters

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Arletta’s hands trembled as she pulled the old shoe shine kit out of the cedar chest. “Grandma, why do you have that weird box in there?” Leticia, her granddaughter, asked in a bored tone.

“It isn’t a weird box, Tisha,” Arletta said. “It’s a shoe shine kit. But what’s in here is even more precious to me than some old boot black and scrub brush.”

She opened it up, shaking fingers fumbling with the latch, and took out a pile of letters carefully tied with black string, a pen and some ink, and a stack of black and white photos. “Are those from grandpa?” Leticia asked, still not showing any interest.

“No. They’re from the man I was married to in secret before I met your grandfather,” Arletta said.

Now she had her granddaughter’s attention. “You had a secret marriage, Grandma?”

Arletta nodded. “I always told your grandfather that your Uncle Robert was my sister Gloria’s son, and that I adopted him after she died from tuberculosis.”

“I take it that’s not true,” Leticia said.

“No. Robert is my son. See, Lloyd and I came from two different sides of town. His father was a banker while mine was a coal miner. We wouldn’t have even met if I hadn’t quite literally bumped into him while taking some of our excess eggs to the grocer to sell. We lived in a pretty small community, so we could still do that. I was pretty back then, with cherry red hair and dark blue eyes. Everyone thought I was the belle of the village. Lloyd was rugged and handsome. He was the star quarterback of the football team.”

“He sounds cooler than grandpa,” Leticia said.

“Oh, he had his flaws,” Arletta said with a fond little smile. “But it was worth putting up with them to be around him.” She stared down at the pictures. “We started dating. We took our outings to Detroit, since that was the nearest big city where no one would really recognize us. Then we went to a church in Detroit one day, found a couple witnesses on the street, and got married. We moved to Detroit – him to work in a bank to get “experience in the family business without the taint of nepotism” – and me in an office. We were really lucky to get those jobs. Most banks were closing down and lots of offices were shutting their doors too. The Great Depression didn’t spare many people.”

“So what happened to Lloyd?” Leticia asked.

“World War 2,” Arletta said. “After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he enlisted. He was a strong, fit man and was snapped up pretty quick. He was just twenty, and me nineteen, when he left. We’d been trying for a few months to have a baby, but it didn’t look like we were successful, and I was glad because it was going to be awful hard to take care of a baby while he was gone.” She caressed the pile of letters. “These are all his letters to me. He never told me about the bad things going on over there. He always had a funny story to share, talked about how we’d build us a new house outside of Detroit to raise a family in, and we’d finally tell our parents about us being married because the war was making him realize just what was really important.” She bowed her head. “Then the letters stopped coming.”

“Did he die?” Leticia asked.

Arletta nodded. “I didn’t know for so long. They ignored me as next of kin and went back to his parents, since they claimed he wasn’t married. It took your Aunt Gloria, who was already really sick at that point, writing me a letter and telling me how I’d missed ‘the biggest funeral the town had ever seen.'”

“How long had he been away?” Leticia asked.

“Seven months,” Arletta said. “I was very pregnant when I got the news. I sent a reply to Gloria, begging her to come to Detroit if she could. She arrived just in time to see Robert delivered. My name is on his birth certificate as his mother, but I left the father line purposely blank. The doctor and the nurses were not pleased by this, and offered up community services for us, but I refused. I took Robert home and Gloria stayed with me and helped me take care of him until she passed away when he was four. To this day, Robert thinks Gloria was his mother, but it’s time for him to know the truth.”

Leticia went through some of the pictures. “Grandma, is this Lloyd?” she asked, gesturing to a handsome soldier in a uniform.

“Yes, that’s my beloved Lloyd,” Arletta said. “We’re standing together outside the recruitment station in Detroit.”

“Grandma, there’s a man at the nursing home I work at with this same picture, right down to a woman wearing an identical dress,” Leticia said. “He told me she was his first and only wife, that he never had another even though he’d been reported dead. He didn’t have the courage to return home after that and lived overseas for most of his life.”

“What’s his name?” Arletta asked.

“He goes by the name of Jack,” Leticia said.

Arletta’s hands shook. “Jack was what we all called Lloyd. Because when he was a teenager, he tried a bit of everything to see what it was he liked to do. He became a ‘jack of all trades.'”

“Grandma, you have to come see him,” Leticia said. “Now. He’s got cancer, so he isn’t going to last much longer.”

“Let’s go,” Arletta said, putting the letters aside and standing up. “I have to know if it’s him.”

Leticia drove her grandmother to the large nursing home where she worked as a CNA on the swing shift. They walked in and Leticia beelined it for a very familiar room. There, propped up in his bed, was a rugged looking man with a massive scar on one side of his face.

He smiled when Leticia walked in the room. “Tisha, I thought you had today off,” he said.

“I do. Jack, you said you had a wife a long time ago,” Leticia said. “What was her name?”

“Arletta, though I called her Lettie,” Jack said with a wistful look in his eye. “I miss her something terrible every day. Today’s especially hard since it would have been our sixty seventh wedding anniversary.”

“It is our sixty seventh wedding anniversary,” Arletta said, stepping into the room, tears streaming down her face.

“Lettie?” Jack tried to sit up more. Leticia adjusted the back of the bed so he had the support he needed.

Arletta went to his side. “Jack, why didn’t you write me? Or come home? All these years I thought you were dead.”

“I felt like I was,” Jack said. “Lettie, I haven’t been able to walk properly since the end of the war. I’m blind in the eye with all the scars. How was I supposed to take care of you? I couldn’t take care of myself. I let everyone think I was dead and tried to get on as best as I could in England. But something in me made me come home five years ago.”

“I remarried, Jack. When they told me you were dead,” Arletta said. “Five years after your funeral. I’ve got a daughter from that marriage. That’s Leticia’s mother.” She took a deep breath. “But we’ve got a son, Jack. His name’s Robert. He don’t know we’re his parents. I told him he was Gloria’s. I never stopped hurting enough all these years to tell him the truth.”

“You have to, Lettie. I don’t have long, and I’m guessing you don’t either,” Jack said. Arletta shook her head. “We have to tell him right away. Call him down here right now.”

“I’m on it,” Leticia said. “What do you want me to tell him?”

“Tell him that deep, dark family secret he’s always suspected is coming out and he needs to be here for it,” Arletta said through her tears. She clutched Jack’s hand. “That’ll bring him faster than anything.” Leticia dialed her uncle’s number while the aged lovers simply stared into each other’s eyes.

Just an ordinary businessman

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Photo via Visualhunt.com

“He’s been locked in that room for days,” my wife said to someone. I continued pushing pins into the wall, faster and faster. I had to finish before she opened the door. I had to get done. “I can’t even get him to speak to me. The only reason I know he’s alive is he’s come out from time to time after we’ve all gone to bed to eat.”

It’s true. There were times where I was too weak to go on with my task, so I’d slip into the kitchen and grab something quickly before I was seen. I pricked my finger on one of the pins. I ignored the moment of pain. How many times had that happened in the past…how long had I been in here? I shook my head. It didn’t matter. Only my purpose mattered.

“You say he’s been acting strange for a while now?” a deep gravelly voice answered her. I didn’t recognize it so I moved on. “Explain that, please.”

“He went to this antiquities auction and purchased several items,” my wife said. “It’s part of his job. Or it was, until he got fired for stealing three books from what he’d gotten for his client. My husband isn’t a thief. He told me someone else made him take those books. I believed him. This was about two weeks ago. Ten days ago he started rambling about his ‘mission’, locked himself in the spare bedroom, and hasn’t emerged since. I think he has those books in there with him.”

“I see. Thank you, ma’am,” the gravelly voice replied.”Okay boys, we’ve probably got a class two field up over the door, so bring the splitter. Then we’ll need a plasma torch and the coolant gel.”

I scowled. A splitter would disrupt the frequency of my force field and a plasma torch would cut through the door with little effort. I glanced down at what I held in my hands. I was almost done. If I hurried, I’d finish just as they broke in. I pushed onward.

I heard the crackle of electricity as the generator shorted out. Then I felt the heat as the door was destroyed by the plasma torch. I pinned the last page up just as the metal hit the floor with a clunk. I turned to see a security officer in full riot gear smear coolant gel on the opening before stepping through.

“Clear,” he shouted. “No visible sign of weapons.”

“Of course I don’t have any weapons,” I said calmly. “I don’t believe in them.”

Another man, this one dressed in a more streamlined set of armor, entered the room. “Mr. Ross, I’m Captain Daniels of the Old District New York security office.” It was the gravelly voice.

“Pleased to meet you, Captain Daniels,” I said with a pleasant smile.

“Your aberrant behavior requires us to take you in for psychiatric evaluation,” Captain Daniels said.

“Certainly,” I said. “May I wash my hands first? I’m afraid I’m covered in dust and ink.”

“Mr. Ross, what have you been doing in here?” Captain Daniels asked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” I said, shrugging. “The voices finally stopped without telling me why it was so important the pages go up in this particular order. I’m sure I’ve gone mad, but at least my mind is quiet now.”

“You two,” Captain Daniels barked, gesturing to the first officer through and a second who’d joined him. “Escort Mr. Ross to the bathroom so he can wash up. Then take him to the transport.” He unlocked and opened the door. “Mrs. Ross, your husband is non-combative at this time, but I suggest you and your children still stand back.”

I heard her muffled sob. I felt nothing. She’d been an adequate spouse, nothing special, but very good at executing her duties. Well, all but one. My children were spoiled, overindulged little monsters thanks to her, and no matter how much I tried to discipline them she would countermand everything I tried to do. All of them needed to be punished.

I glanced at the wall. Thin bands of red light were starting to show between the pages. I let them lead me out of the room. I washed quickly and then got in the van when I was taken to it. I stayed very docile, not wanting to draw attention to anything. As the door started to slide shut, I heard the first of the screams. I started laughing as the security officers ran inside. I let myself out of the van and started walking down the street. No one paid any attention to me. I was, after all, just an ordinary businessman.

A bridge to nowhere

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Photo via Visualhunt

Coralie and Sera were tired, but exhilarated. They were nearing the midway point of the forty kilometer trek they’d started the previous day. Their guide smiled at them as she led them to the edge of the cliff. “Here is what you seek,” she said, gesturing.

Both women gazed out in awe. The chasm opened in front of them, spanning sixteen kilometers across and nearly fifty kilometers deep. It was the largest natural wonder on a planet full of beautiful places such as the one they now bore witness to.

A waterfall plunged from a hidden river down the opposite side of the canyon in four different streams, sending mist all through the area. The light of the sun reflected off of the water, creating a mass of rainbows. A light breeze swirled the mist, causing the rainbows to flicker and dance.

As Coralie and Sera drank in the sight, Sera turned slightly and noticed something incongruous. “What is that?” she asked, gesturing to a narrow gray band that stretched between the two sides of the canyon.

“A bridge to nowhere,” the guide said tersely. There was a tremor in her voice and Coralie noticed the fear reflected in the way her feathers were slicked down and the wings pressed tightly against her back. “We dare not approach it.”

“What do you mean a bridge to nowhere?” Sera asked. “It obviously goes to the other side. I want to see what’s over there.” She turned to Coralie. “Come on. Let’s go check it out.”

“I don’t know,” Coralie said. “Xochtil is really frightened. I think we should listen to her.”

The Avia nodded. “Listen to your friend. Much darkness will come of your venturing there.”

Sera’s chin jutted out and her lips compressed. “We came here to see everything this site had to offer. I’m not turning back until I see what’s over the bridge.”

“Sera,” Coralie began, putting a hand on her friend’s shoulder.

Sera shook hit off. “Stay here with Xochtil if you want. I’m going.” The burly blond started towards the bridge. Xochtil and Coralie followed after her.

It took nearly an hour to reach it. Sera frowned as she took in the level of disrepair. “I really don’t think this is a good idea, Sera. The bridge doesn’t look that safe,” Coralie said.

“You’re just scared because you buy into the superstitious nonsense the Avia feed to us,” Sera said. “I’m crossing.” Sera started across. The strange substance creaked under her feet but held firm. She reached the other side. Turning around, she waved to her friend and their guide. “See? The bridge is perfectly safe. Come join me.”

“You have crossed. Now return,” Xochtil said. “Do not enter the forest. It leads to nowhere.”

Sera turned her back to the two on the other side of the canyon. The sun was heating things up. The forest was shaded and looked very cool. Sera walked in, ignoring the calls from her friend and their guide. The shadows grew darker the farther in she went. Soon she could barely see anything. She decided to go back to the bridge.

She turned around but the darkness was just as thick behind her. She frowned. She should have been able to see the light from the edge of the forest. She started back in what she thought was the direction she came from. Nothing changed.

It was then that she noticed she was walking in silence. There were no sounds whatsoever. No animals, no trees, and she couldn’t even hear her own footsteps. She tried snapping her fingers. The motions were there but the noise wasn’t. She couldn’t even feel her fingers as they struck against each other. Fear gripped her.

She thought back to the legends of the Avia. Then she remembered. “Nowhere” to the Avia was the Void, an endless dimension of total sensory deprivation that no one had ever escaped from. She shuddered and started running. She had to get back to the bridge, to the sun, to Coralie and Xochtil. She had to get back to her life. Heaviness entered her limbs and she slowed to a walk and then stopped. Something sapped her energy and she sank to what she thought was the ground. The dark, soundless, touchless void entered her soul and she lost herself in its madness.

Do the stars gaze back?

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Photo via Visual Hunt

Ethian sat ramrod straight in his seat. He didn’t have much of a choice. His tutor had tied a board to his back to prevent him from assuming his usual slouch. His spine ached and he had a headache but he knew it wouldn’t matter to the man droning on in front of him. Percival’s duty was to instruct the young prince in the matters of law, science, mathematics, and history. He took that responsibility very seriously and refused to acknowledge that his methods were detrimental to his charge’s health.

“Your Highness, have you heard anything I’ve said?” Percival asked, breaking into Ethian’s thoughts.

Ethian sighed. “Yes Percival, I have. You were just discussing about how our world is the center of the universe and there is no other greater than us.”

Percival harrumphed and resumed his lecture. Ethian went back to daydreaming. His ability to ignore his tutor and yet repeat back everything he said was something of a boon to the adolescent prince as it meant he was able to amuse himself in spite of how uncomfortable he was.

His current pondering was a challenge issued in a book of philosophy he’d been reading the night before: “Do we gaze at the stars to search their meaning? That is a foolish supposition. The real question is do the stars gaze back, and what to they think when they see the enigma that is man?”

“Your Highness, would you please answer my question?” Percival snapped, once again breaking into Ethian’s musings.

Ethian glared at the man. “You just asked me a totally unanswerable question in the hopes of tripping me up to prove I wasn’t paying attention.”

Percival blinked, then scowled. “You are far too pert, young man. I ought to take a rod to your hands for such rudeness.”

“Yes, but if you do that my father will take your head,” Ethian said. “He holds no love for those who abuse his sons, or their positions.”

Percival quickly unbound him and sent him on his way. Ethian left the classroom and climbed to the top of the highest tower. It was already dark. His lessons came at night, when he was free from his duties. He preferred it that way. Escaping into the darkness, staring up at the moons and the starlit sky, that was his favorite method of relaxing.

He looked up at the twinkling lights and once again considered the question he’d read the night before. Do the stars gaze back at us? What do they see? What do they think of us?

He heard a tinkling laugh. He turned around quickly but saw no one. A sparkling beam of light settled to the ground in front of him. “Of course we see you, silly human. Your kind are foolish, cruel, and violent. Yet you have the capacity for greatness, love, and humility. You are a source of great confusion and amusement to us.”

“I didn’t know I spoke those words out loud,” he said.

“You didn’t,” the star said. “We hear all thoughts, witness all dreams. It is a cacophony of sound and a dance of madness, yet it is bliss. You are wise for your age, young prince. We will watch you closely.” The light faded and the prince was left alone. Yet he knew he wasn’t. The stars watched him always.