Urban Fantasy

supernatural creatures in the real world

The Sycamore Tree

When I first heard the legend that a sycamore tree stood at the eastern gates of heaven and rewarded those who lived within its shadow, I didn’t realize they meant my tree—the one on the hilltop at Two Rivers. I didn’t believe in the magic until I turned seven and dreamed I’d died.

I stepped outside into the morning shade of the three-hundred-year-old tree. Legend said that if the goddess allowed, anyone born within its shadow could be reborn there. But rebirth was the last thing on my mind, and I rubbed my chest, fresh from the death dream memory of car exhaust fumes, hot engine oil, and grease.

I ran to school because Games Day was the school’s big event of the year, and I was late. I kept to the edges of the oval, away from teachers and sports jocks.

Hugh Wintergreen ran past with a stupid grin plastered over his face. He tugged at my shirt. He said, “Catch me!” and headed toward the main gate.

I gave chase. I caught him and we ran onto the road, into the traffic, where he dared me to follow and play chicken.

I recognized the car and a feeling to stop tore at me. With the death dream fresh in my mind, I froze mid stride, and tried to grab Hugh.

He kept running and dodging cars until the car I’d seen screeched to a stop. Hugh disappeared underneath it.

I screamed and felt every one of his ribs snap.

The smell of hot rubber, car oil, and engine grease, tore at my nostrils. My stomach churned and I threw up into the gutter.

People came running.

Mariana Blackburn, a girl from my class, arrived first. She screamed. “Stu McBane pushed him.”

Her family didn’t approve of my single mum and her birthing clinic. I looked up, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, ready to deny I’d pushed Hugh, but I recognized her voice as the girl who yelled in my dream. The dream had come true, and I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been me who’d died.

The taxi driver was Hugh Stevens’ father, another boy in my class, and he vouched for me, but still, a seed of doubt grew from Mariana’s claim.

Games Day was cancelled, and I trudged home. Mum waited in the kitchen. She’d heard. Two Rivers was a small town.

She checked me over. “You’re fine.” She ruffled my hair. “Go and thank the goddess in the sycamore tree.”

I frowned. “Now?”

She put her hands on her hips.

I nodded and put my boots back on and stepped outside. The door slammed shut on its sprung hinges and I heard her again.

“Take a bag of compost with you and sprinkle it around the tree when you’re there.”

Mum ran a birthing clinic by the tree when the moon was full, and didn’t care what the rest of the town thought. I always thought her a bit crazy, but I loved her all the same.

A Scratch, a Scratch

“Jesus H. Christ,” she muttered through clenched teeth as she heard him begin that awful scrape of sliding Styrofoam boards. He was attempting to remove the slabs of (probably fucking fake) wood from the box to assemble the first piece of furniture they would own together as a married couple, the Ikea coffee table, which she’d hated upon first seeing in the catalogue—it was unoriginal and for some reason dauntingly despairing—but had been advised by her mother that it was “certainly worth the money.” Katharine thought nothing was ever “worth the money.” Fearing marriage to be another piece of evidence to add to this empirical absolute, as it had cost her seven grand and had earned her a jeweled piece-of-shit dress, she crept from the bedroom, where she’d been sorting clothes into “his” and “hers” piles, to the kitchen, where she intended to sneak a swig of gin which she’d carefully hidden when she’d been in charge of organizing the pots and pans, it being of course “woman’s work.”

As she headed over to the kitchen, while trying to avoid the prying eyes of her new lifelong mate, she began to contemplate what the “H” in “Jesus H. Christ” really stood for. Certainly Jesus didn’t have a middle name.

Having become trapped in her religious reverie, Katharine walked into the kitchen only to find she’d forgotten exactly why she’d come into this room in the first place. Yet she couldn’t go back to the bedroom—she’d risk him seeing her, and then he’d want to talk about the damned table or check on how things were going “on her end,” and she’d have to smile.

“Fuck,” she whispered to herself. Luckily her newlywed husband remained safely in the living room, trying to make sure he had “all his ducks in a row,” which he yelled out as if offering an explanation as to why it was taking him so fucking long to remove the Styrofoam-encased pieces of the Hazelnut Haven coffee table from their box. Why he considered it at all appropriate to deliver this offensively loud newsfeed was beyond her comprehension.

Derailed by the scraping, grating Styrofoam, she abandoned her forgotten mission in the kitchen and headed straight to the garage, where she’d hidden some cheap vodka she’d purchased at a gas station on the twenty-one hour drive to this new house in this new subdivision—Green Valley Acres, what a joke! There were only five completed houses in the whole damned lot, and the rest of it consisted of crumbling cement, mounds of dirt, and unfinished foundations, beams and boards hanging precariously over the ominous desolation from which they’d emerged.

She went to the shelves hanging on the far side of the garage, opened the box marked “Christmas Decorations – Katharine,” which he’d never care to deal with, and rummaged around for the vodka. Finding a little less than a quarter of the bottle left, she went to stand by the garage door so that she could gaze out of the already dirty windows as she drank.

The solitary streetlamp cast pale, flickering light upon the torn-up street. She couldn’t even fathom the damage she’d probably done to her car in the short drive up to their new house, but she supposed it didn’t matter, anyway. Mark wanted to buy a new car—one that was safer, with clear approval from Car and Driver magazine—something more appropriate than her beat up Kia for a child, or, if things went as planned, a couple of children. One boy and one girl.

And there it came. The sudden panic and terror. She felt as though she could feel the child already growing within her, scraping its fingernails within her stomach, ballooning up at a monstrous rate of growth. She needed to destroy something.

Searching through the garage, she couldn’t find much. Many of Mark’s tools had not yet been unloaded from the trunk, where he’d kept them “just in case they got into some sort of pickle” while making the drive.

Yet she did find one screwdriver, some screws, some nails, and a hammer, all of which he’d probably left out in case he needed them to build any of the furniture (he always planned ahead). Considering the options, she thought the hammer would be the most likely to cause the most damage.

She didn’t plan on slamming herself in the head or anything of the sort—she wasn’t crazy. She just needed something to center herself, to allow her to escape the incessant err-errring of scraping Styrofoam, that buzzing, flickering lamplight, that persistent, nagging persistent child begging for birth. So she placed her left hand upon the wooden workbench and positioned her thumb so that it lay vulnerable and ready.

Then, she lifted the hammer as one always raises a hammer, with deliberation and care, and brought it down straight upon her thumb. The pain was beautifully immediate. Her thumb seemed to ring from the pain, and all the other thoughts stopped swirling as the blood rushed to her extremity. “Fuck!” she cried.

“You okay, hon? What are you doing out there?” Mark yelled out from the house.

“Helping find tools for you. Just dropped one on my foot. No big deal,” she responded through clenched teeth.

“Honey, it says right here on the box: No additional tools required. Don’t worry about it. I’m just getting my ducks in a row.”

“Fucking ducks,” she mumbled to herself, shaking her hand vigorously to ease off the pain. What would she do if he noticed? She could always claim she had dropped another tool, this time on her hand. Chalk it up to her feminine clumsiness around tools.

Not that he thought of her that way—not in the least. He did not see the world in the way she sometimes painted him to see it. If anything, Mark had chosen her, married her, in large part for her tremendous reliability, her ability to hold her own, her lack of the hysteria his own mother possessed in reaping, seeping heapfuls.

“I’m just so glad to’ve found someone so stable and so supportive. You’re my rock,” he’d offered up in their self-written vows.

What would happen if he discovered that “his rock” was made of water (perhaps, more aptly, wine)? What would happen if he discovered that when she was struck—by emotion, by a flickering streetlamp or, for God’s sake, by the fucking incessant scraping of Styrofoam boards in her ears, she might explode into a heavenly mead of alcohol and inexplicable havoc? What would he do then?

Fearing the worst, Katharine looked down at her hand. This was always both the worst and best moment of the mutilation—the pain would flare up in raving flames as soon as her eyes turned to whatever part she’d just cut, smashed, ripped, or scratched. It always seemed to offer proof that perception was reality, for once she looked upon it, it became real.

But this time, as she set her eyes upon her left thumb, something strange happened—nothing. No pain. No throbbing redness, no immediate bruising as she’d seen when she’d smashed her hand into the wall of the solitary band practice room when she was in college. There was absolutely no discoloration. No swelling, no feeling of the blood rushing towards the pain. Nothing.

“What the fuck?” she thought. Hadn’t she done it? Hadn’t she actually hit herself with the hammer? Surely she hadn’t made it up, dreamed it. She hadn’t had that much to drink.

She drank some more, to ease the disquiet seeping steadily and irrevocably in. This was her form of meditation, of isolation, of calm. When the therapist had been called in to see her that one time freshmen year, he’d told her, mistakenly, to find something she loved, something that centered her, and do that thing every time she felt the world spinning. Every time she felt that over-stimulation–that’s what he would call her Styrofoam scraping, lamplight flickering, fetus scratching anxieties–become too overwhelming.

And so Katharine had found not one, but two things that brought her peace and quiet: getting pissed drunk to ease her mind, and, in the steady grace that always followed liquor filling her stomach, drowning all noise with the sudden and immediate desecration of some part of herself. She’d done it all, though never in obvious places. She wasn’t crazy. She knew the drill. Those bitches who cut wrists were cliché, attention-seeking. No, she’d sliced her elbows with a knife, cut her ankles up with razors, scraped her knees with a cheese grater.

And Mark. Good old Mark. How could he ever notice? He knew she worked out hard. He loved her fastidious, driven approach to exercise. And how could he find fault with her bruises, burns, and scrapes, when she was merely committed to running and riding her bike so that she could maintain her youthful health? She was so sturdy. And so unlike his mother, who had eaten her way into a nearly fatal obesity at such a young age.

Those scrapes, those scratches, those burns—those were her connections with a sort of dreamlike solitude that existed only in brief and fleeting moments. Those moments when her head would stop its screeching and its cage-rattling. When her body would stop its twitching and its pussy-aching.

Every time she felt the pain, her strength was regained. She was refreshed. And it wasn’t only in the moment. Every time she saw a slight red scab, or felt herself, while straddling Mark during sex, begin to burn the scrapes on her knees with the friction of the sheets beneath her, she felt the waves of calm come easing in, setting her adrift, far from the shore, with its moaning, landlocked demons, and into a world all her own. A world of blues and calms and setting suns as she looked out across glassy waters.

So what the fuck? Why wasn’t there any pain? Why wasn’t there any swelling? She’d hit it hard, she knew she had.

“Hon? Would you mind taking a look at this for me?” Mark yelled out from the living room to the garage. “I don’t see a letter label on this piece.”

Fucking idiot. Just look at the diagram. Glancing once again at her despairingly healthy pink thumb, Katharine put down the useless hammer and hid her vodka in the Christmas box again.

Everything I Should Have Told Her

Sophie’s fingers splay slowly against the door. She slides her long blonde hair out of the way and presses her ear firmly to the beige-painted wood grain. Light moves all around the door’s frame, centers on her feet, and stops. She freezes. She doesn’t even breathe. Her mouth is fixed in a tight little line. Her wide eyes lift to the surveillance camera.

I replay the tape several times a day, every day. In that moment, before she enters the windowless storage room and never comes out, I like to think that her eyes gazing into the black bulb on the ceiling are telling me good-bye. I imagine that she knows everything I meant to say but didn’t, and that she is okay with all of it. Of course, I don’t know for sure. I will never know for sure. Sophie is gone.

In the video, there is a horrifying moment where she reaches for the doorknob, her delicate fingers closing slowly on the handle. I scream at my computer monitor every time, begging her not to go into “that room,” as it is known now. But every maddening time, the door opens and light floods her face. She doesn’t move. No matter how many times I yell at her to run, she doesn’t move. The light blinds out the camera for a moment, then fades. All that is left is an empty hallway.

The police tore the place apart. They even dug up the floor and ripped the walls down to the bare studs. They played the tape over and over, too. The Captain of the police force assured the worried office staff that people don’t just disappear. Someone knows something, he had said, his gaze falling on me. Everyone was questioned, but I was questioned last and the longest. People had talked about how much I’d liked her, how we spent every lunch hour together. We were friends, but it was no secret I wanted more. The only person that didn’t know that was Sophie.

Her motorcycle was taken by the police. I had laughed when she bought it and taught herself to ride. It was a gas saver, she had reasoned, and gave me a wicked smile. She swung one long leg over the silver bike and dropped her helmet over her head. “Plus,” she added wistfully, “it makes it easier to imagine my getaway.”

“Your getaway?”

“You know, just walk away from the world. No more work, or bills, or expectations. Just the road and some freedom, you know? Don’t you ever think about that, Cam? Just saying ‘To Hell with it, it, I’m out!’”

“Well, yeah, but what adult doesn’t think about that? Sometimes I think about selling everything I own and hitchhiking across the country. But would I ever do it? Of course not.”

“You would leave me?” she asked in mock despair, placing her hand over her heart. “What on earth would I do?” She fanned her face and pretended to blot tears away. I burst out laughing.

“Hey, you brought it up first. I’d go nuts here without you,” I said, feeling awkward.

“Yeah, I know,” she said with a sigh. “It’s just something I think about sometimes. It’s good to know I’m not the only one, though.”

“Nah, it’s everybody. We all dream of escaping.”

She had shrugged and looked away. That short conversation took place only two weeks before she vanished, and I wish now, more than anything, that I’d asked her what she meant, asked her if she was all right. But instead I watched her start the bike and ride away. She had looked so beautiful with her blonde hair whipping wildly behind her, and the first rousing piano and guitar notes of “Bat Out of Hell” blasting out of speakers mounted on the bike. I had thought that a song about a bike wreck was asking for trouble, but I never said anything about it.

Sophie’s disappearance has weighed my mind down, drowning it over and over, turning a mystery into an unhealthy obsession. I haven’t slept in a year. I get to the office early every day, usually before dawn and even on weekends, and I stand in front of that door and watch. I wait for the noise she heard and I wait for the light, and so far I’ve gotten nothing but sidelong stares from the cleaning crew.

I have exhausted all possible venues for answers. I’ve delved deeply into science: wormholes, black holes, sink holes, any way possible that the world could have opened up and swallowed her. I’ve poured over science fiction as well: parallel dimensions, aliens, or some bizarre magnetic shift that could have de-atomized her. It all sounds possible and impossible at the same time. I even checked into the building, like I’m a Ghostbuster. It wasn’t built to align with stars a certain way, or constructed on some ancient, cursed burial ground. It wasn’t holy. It wasn’t unholy. It was just dirt. And she was just gone.

Now I wish I could tell her how she is driving me crazy.

A year to the day after Sophie vanished I wake up to the foul taste of last night’s drinking binge on my tongue. I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and suddenly feel disgusted. I have lost weight and there are circles under my eyes. I need a shave and a haircut. It dawns on me that I haven’t seen my family in a very long time, and that my one houseplant died from neglect long ago. Everything in my fridge is rotten or freezer-burnt. I feel like I’ve been dead a year.

I send a quick email to the office manager to let him know that I quit, and I am about to turn off my computer for good when I decide to play the tape one last time.

Sophie is walking down the hall, carrying a stack of papers when she abruptly stops at the storage room door. She leans forward, angling her head to hear. She puts the papers down on a nearby chair and steps forward. She slides her fingers over the door, and then places her ear against it. I watch the tape as earnestly as I did the first time I saw it. Everything is the same. The light shines through the door frame, bouncing at first, and then stops.

Her eyes stare into the surveillance camera and she smiles. Stale coffee dribbles down my chin.

She is smiling at me. I know it. Her fingers slide down to the handle and open the door. She gives the slightest, left-sided nod, and then light floods the view. The rest of the tape plays normally. I back the recording up and the same thing happens, except this time her nod is a little more pronounced, insistent.

Come here.

I jump up to run out the door and fly to the office when I hear a noise coming from my bedroom. It is a mechanical sound, raising in pitch and then dropping off with a slight rumble. I recognize the sound. My heart flutters. I stumble over dirty clothes and takeout boxes in my desperate run to look out the bedroom window.

Nothing.

I hear the rumble again, and I see lights dancing under my closet door. My feet pull me forward. I splay my fingers slowly against the cheap corkboard, and press my ear to the center. The sound of motorcycle tires spinning on pavement and the roar of an engine that could go faster than any boy could dream fill my head. As my fingers slide down to the handle, I hear familiar guitar and piano notes, coupled with the thundering machine. I take a deep breath and open the door. Before the bright headlight can blind me, I see a flash of long blonde hair under a black helmet. Relief washes over me, pure and sweet. I’m going to tell her everything.

Growing up in poor Northeastern Arkansas, Julie used books and stories as an escape from everyday life. She still does that, even though everyday life is much improved. She also likes to cook, make jewelry, and care for some very ungrateful rescued rabbits. You can follow her on twitter at JulieEmerson10.

The Virgin and The Dragon

Vivian slammed the rooftop door open; the metal and brick clashed with all the defiance a wrongfully scolded four-year-old could produce. Tears made the marker ink on her face mix together like Neopolitan ice cream, but what dripped into her mouth tasted like paint. Her feet thudded on the cement before her tears cleared and she saw a mass of gold and brown scales: a dragon took up most of the rooftop.

She stepped back so she could see the face, and gulped and wheezed until the sobbing stopped. She asked, “Are you Puff?”

The dragon opened one eye and said, “Hardly.”

His lid began to close but stopped midway when she said, “I just drew a cave for him on the hallway wall, but since you’re here and he’s not, you can have it.”

The lid opened all the way again. “You painted a dragon cave?”

Vivian nodded her head like the bobble knight on her dad’s dashboard and said, “It’s beautiful except my mom hates it and says I can’t watch TV for a month, especially if it’s any of dad’s movies.” Traffic honked and screeched far below as if to add an exclamation point to her exasperation.

The dragon closed his eye before saying, “I don’t have much use for a two dimensional cave.”

Vivian sniffed the snot up her nose and said, “Are you hungry? My mom just went to CostCo and bought a big box of Goldfish.”

The eye opened and he said, “Goldfish? I can never catch enough of those to make it worth while. But if you have a big box…”

“I’ll be right back.” Vivian could hardly believe a real dragon was on her roof. Her mom was always telling her dad to grow up and quit telling Vivian such fanciful stories. But now she had proof. Down in the kitchen, she slid her step stool across the ceramic tiled floor and into the pantry. She stretch on the stool just enough to pull the bottom of the Goldfish box with her fingertips. It thumped to the ground. She listened for her mom’s footsteps, but she must’ve been asleep in her room. Vivian grabbed her treasure and ran up to the rooftop again, worried the dragon would be gone. He was there.

“I have the goldfish!”

He opened both eyes and said, “Well?”

She tore the box and bag open and scattered the crackers in front of his mouth like they were magic dust.

“What are those?”

“Goldfish.”

“Are they dead?”

Vivian stared at the treasure and realized her mistake. A lump swelled in her throat, and she choked out, “They’re crackers. I didn’t mean real fish.”

The dragon sniffed. A long tongue darted out and licked up several crackers at once. “Cheesy,” he said and continued to lick the roof clean. “When can you bring me more? I’m Darius by the way.”

“I’m Vivian. We’ll have another box in a month. Can you come in and play?”

“I couldn’t possibly squeeze through the door.”

Vivian slumped, but then recalled the story about princesses kissing frogs. Maybe if she kissed him, he’d turn into a boy and fit through the door. She ran to his snout and gave him a peck. When he didn’t change, she dashed through the door and down the stairs, hoping he’d never guess her foolish notion.

She Leaves Things Behind

The smell didn’t come from Kim’s dirty carpets, or from the stacks of moldy magazines, or even from the ashtrays full of Salem butts scattered around the house. Those were smells of neglect. This was a fouler, more active smell, and I realized when Kim’s aunt Eleanor pushed past me with an armful of clean clothes that it came from her. I could almost feel the particles of rotten air getting lodged in my nasal passages, scraping the back of my throat. I could taste it.

On the kitchen floor, Kim used a butter knife to scrape caked food from between the tiles. I poured some extra Pine-Sol on her coffee table to try to mask the smell. It was something like burned hair, something like crushed insects.

Kim looked up at me as she dumped the crumbs into the trash. Her hair was slipping out of her ponytail. Without her makeup, the lines around her eyes betrayed that she wasn’t much younger than me.

“Thanks for helping me clean, Leah,” she said. “I already feel better.”

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” I told her.

Even with the three of us, it would take at least the whole day to even put a dent in Kim’s perpetual mess.

“I know,” she said, “But I’m ready for a change. I’m not going to slide back this time.”

I finished wiping the coffee table and picked up a stack of mail from the floor. One of the postmark dates was three years old.

Eleanor emerged from the bedroom, the smell with her.

“Where you keep your socks?” she asked.

Kim looked confused, as though the question had never occurred to her before.

“Just find an empty drawer,” Kim said.

Wherever Eleanor was, I tried to be in the opposite part of the house. By the end of the day I found myself shut in the bathroom, scraping dried toothpaste from the sink.

Seeing Kim out in the small town bars you wouldn’t guess her house looked like this. She always had a new sequin shirt or dress with flowing sleeves from the downtown tourist shops, and she usually smelled of cigarettes and dollar store perfume. I met Kim at Karaoke six months ago. She sang sad country songs with a voice that put everyone else in the karaoke queue to shame. She was the only real friend I’d made since I moved to the mountains. My mom had just died. The move was a desperate attempt to not have to take care of anyone for awhile.

Kim knocked on the bathroom door.

“Aunt Eleanor’s leaving.”

I frowned at the streaked mirror. Did she expect me to come out and give the old woman a hug goodbye? I gulped a breath of relatively fresh air, then opened the bathroom door and took one step out. I glimpsed her at the front door.

“Nice to meet you, Eleanor,” I said.

She lifted a hand but didn’t turn to me. I stepped back into the bathroom and discovered something sticky on my shoe. My sole was covered in purple goo. I sat on the edge of the bathtub. It wasn’t gum. Jelly, maybe? I sniffed it and recoiled when I found it had the same smell as Eleanor. I ran the shoe under the tub faucet, scrubbed it with shampoo. I wedged it in the towel rack to dry.

In the corner by the bathroom door, I noticed a small purple ball, the same color as what had smeared on my shoe. I picked it up with a square of toilet paper. It reminded me of a fish egg, but the size of a marble. I took it out to Kim.

“Do you know what this is?”

She pulled her head out from under the bed, dust bunnies stuck to her hair.

“Some kind of mold?” she said.

That, it certainly was not. Whatever it was, I took it back to the bathroom and flushed it.

Devil At The Crossroads

Willie’s full of shit, Colton thought. This thing doesn’t lead to the devil. He glared at the brass compass duct-taped to the dashboard of his Chrysler 300. The black needle hadn’t changed direction for over an hour. It still pointed due east, further into flat, dusty, desolate Utah.

He ought to turn around right now, go back to Reno and kick Willie’s ass. He smiled at the image of knocking out some teeth with his fist or his nightstick. No, he would use his mini baseball bat. Then he’d break a couple of those saxophone-playing fingers. Well, maybe not Willie’s fingers – his music sounded too good now to ruin. He’d bust Willie’s toes. Did you need all your teeth to play sax? He’d ask him first.

He reached up and covered the pentagram-shaped compass with the palm of his hand. It gave him the same tingly, belly-flipping sensation that convinced him it was legit when he stole it out of Willie’s saxophone case last night. Reassured, Colton settled back into his seat and adjusted the angle of his counterfeit Gucci sunglasses.

He’d been on the road seven hours since he’d followed the compass out of Reno and onto the highway. He was surprised when it didn’t point south. He would’ve bet money the devil was in Vegas, but no. The needle summoned him eastward. He figured he was getting close when it steered him onto US-6. He kept watching the highway markers for those two missing sixes, but an hour into Utah it was still just Route 6. Where the hell were the crossroads? How much further could they be?

He had to take a piss. He shouldn’t have gotten that Big Gulp when he stopped for gas, but the cashier was too pretty to pass by. He’d hoped to hustle her back into the storeroom. She’d giggled when he offered to demonstrate the Cherokee method of going down on her (seeing as he was one-eighth Indian), but he didn’t have enough time to talk her into it. He had places to go and a devil to meet. It had taken ten minutes to get her phone number as it was, and he drank more of the Dr. Pepper than he should have while he was flirting.

Frozen Wings

There was a time when Barbara had believed in mystery. When she slushed through the gray grit of old winter snow, looking out at the huddled, prosaic buildings, she saw not a sleepy North Dakota town but a hushed facade of ordinariness hiding an astonishing beauty. Every day she waited for a breathless moment, a miracle.

But now, at forty, she had lived in Antler her whole life and married gentle Bob, who smiled shyly and brought her coffee and said little. She waitressed at Maggie’s Diner, two blocks from her white clapboard house. She surveyed the horizon of grey downy clouds blanketing the thick mattress of snow, and realized that she was not the princess in the fairy tale, but the pea. Though lately, she wondered if she had not flattened and greyed so much that she was just another fiber in the endless stack of bedding. Barb’s particular despair was that she was comfortable and unsurprised.

Until the day of the wings.

The wings appeared quite suddenly overnight behind Maggie’s Diner, next to the dumpsters. They were grotesquely huge, glossy brown with white-tipped feathers. The bones that would have attached them to the body of the unfortunate bird now anchored them as firmly to the frozen ground as teeth to a jawbone.

A hammy man’s bristly neck was bent over them. Barbara could see the puffs of his labored breath when she arrived at work, but kept her distance. Grunting, he pulled on the wings as if they were stubborn weeds.

It was her boss, Patrick Chud. She could almost taste his thick onion smell. Every morning, Fat Pat ate an onion the way most people would eat an apple, glancing with enjoyment at the gouges his teeth made in the layers of pearly flesh. It was ironic he would eat anything from the onion family, since he was a laughter vampire. Fat Pat sucked out vials of his employees’ laughter to feed his ravenous ego. Chud loved clowning and doing impressions of customers, and expected laughs in return. Employees who did not at least giggle or chortle could expect merciless nitpicking about their work, threats of losing their jobs. Not laughing was a sign of disrespect.

Barb hated herself for laughing, hated him for making her. Just a few weeks ago, a man had creaked into the diner on prosthetic legs. Nobody had ever seen him before; strangers did not often come to Antler. When she took his order, she heard the accent of the deaf: the flat, indistinct sound of the wind speaking. She liked the deep brown puddles of his eyes that seemed to absorb every detail of the place and make it new.

But later, she saw Chud mocking him: he stiffened his knees and teeter-tottered across the room like a fat flamingo, imitating the stranger’s voice when he ordered:

“Gimme some ‘take and fies’, Barbie! Extra-rare take, and extra-French fies!”

The waitresses bleated their laughter; it even trickled out of Barbara, a false and ugly thing. She had avoided the manager ever since, though she hadn’t seen the legless man again. But now Fat Pat spotted her watching him.

“Barbie! Go grab the salt. These things are just frozen solid. Who’s gonna want the turkey and dressing special if they see Big Bird here?”

Obediently she fetched the salt that they used to de-ice the walkway, and poured it around the wings.

“We’ll just let that set. Should be easy to pull up once the ice is melted.”

But he was wrong. Two hours later, the wings stuck just as ferociously. Weeks passed, and then a month. Fat Pat tried to dig them out with a shovel and hack them to bits with a cleaver. His cousin Joey brought a jackhammer. Yet the wings were impervious to any effort, breaking the cleaver and denting the jackhammer. The North Dakota Gazetteer featured a picture of them in a fluffy article, and soon flocks of bundled North Dakotans came to gawk at the scene near the dumpsters at Maggie’s.

Barbara watched the crowds with wry amusement. Fat Pat had finally put Maggie’s on the map with some amputated bird parts. Every day he grew fatter with authority as he greeted the spectators and answered their questions. She couldn’t complain. The tips were good. She had just grabbed her coat and stepped out of the back door, noting how many had come out today, when she saw him.

Slowly, awkwardly, the legless stranger she had encountered months before stilted his way to the knot of onlookers. He appeared to be in a trance, for he paid no attention to the crowd but lasered his eyes to the spot where the wings must be. Barbara approached him. She had to redeem herself in some way for her unwitting cruelty toward him. But when she tapped him on the shoulder, he paid no attention. He had seen the wings.

A cry escaped him, and he fell face-first into the thick snow. Barbara thought to help him up until she noticed he was sobbing, his whole back shaking. The crowd murmured uncomfortably around him, a few picking their way discreetly back to their cars. After several uncertain minutes, he carefully pushed himself up with his hands, and Barbara helped him plank himself into a standing position. His whole snowy, runny face radiated his joy. He unzipped his heavy coat, then removed sweater after sweater, and finally his woolen undershirt.

He bent over the wings and plucked them up like flowers. Then he snapped them easily next to his shoulder blades, as though they were magnets. His wingspan was glorious, but he stayed hovering above the ground until, with a final shout, he detached the dead metal legs and threw them into the snow.

Trying to be Happy

The veranda steps groaned as the movers dragged our things into our newly-purchased, sprawling, dilapidated house. I stood in the shade by the car, drained by the heat. My head throbbed, my feet ached, and I felt fat, sweaty, and resentful. The baby kicked, and I glared down at my distended stomach. I wished I was back home, with air conditioning and a cold cocktail.

John rushed back and forth, giving instructions and grinning like an idiot.

I took a long drink from my water bottle. It was blood-warm.

Motion fluttered in an upstairs window. A teenage girl with dark, elaborately curled hair frowned down at me. She was wearing a filmy, white dress that seemed to flow into the thin curtains. Her eyes met mine. She mouthed something–I’ve never been much of a lip reader–then she vanished.

Chills cut down my sweaty back, and I dropped my water bottle.

John was at my side in an instant. “What’s wrong, Donna?” he asked.

A moment ago, I would have given him a list. “N–Nothing,” I stammered. “Just my imagination playing tricks on me.”

He kissed my forehead and laid a hand over my belly. “Maybe you should sit down. I had them put your rocking chair on the porch. I’ll get you some more water.”

He filled my bottle from the tap. It was only a little cooler, and it tasted like iron.

Leaky magic

It was dark by the time Mark Anderson opened his front door and staggered into the house clutching the dead weight of the shoebox to his chest. He gagged as manure-smelling blue slime oozed from the base of the box, down his suit jacket and onto the hall rug. He pushed the door shut and put the box on the hall floor.

Black beady eyes peeped through the air holes cut in the box, and a tiny finger ending in a brown, gnarled claw poked through. ‘Careful, yer clumsy git!’ came a voice from the box. ‘Yer nearly broke me back, chucking me down like that. Yer past it, yer silly old sod.’

‘Save your breath, kobold,’ Mark said. ‘I’m not listening.’

The kobold was a domestic goblin. Helpful around the place till it didn’t get its own way. After that, pure spite. Mark locked the front door and put his keys into his jacket pocket. His fingers brushed against the pink envelope containing the birthday card he had bought for Pat Court, his boss. It had taken him ages to find, hidden among cards showing fake knitting patterns with obscene captions, garishly coloured landscapes and cute teddy bears. Didn’t they have any that would be suitable for a woman who – like him – was sixty two, and not into foul language, soft toys or boredom? In the end he’d settled for a print of van Gogh’s sunflowers, blank on the inside.

‘Mark! Ma-ark! You’re feeling sleepy,’ the kobold wheedled.

Mark leaned against the wall, wondering what present to get for Pat. What about that perfume she liked? She always smelled lovely. Now, what was it called? Mark closed his eyes and tried to remember.

‘Come on, me old mate, old son, that’s it.’ Just let me out and we’ll say no more about it.’

Mark crouched down next to the box and his hand edged towards the lid.

‘Nice and easy, Markie.’

His eyes snapped open and he stood up. Nobody called him Markie, at least not more than once. ‘I said, shut it. You won’t get round me that way.’ He shook himself.

‘I’ll get yer next time. Yer spineless wimp.’

Mark pulled the bunch of keys out of his jacket pocket and chose one engraved with a pattern of sigils and ornate ancient Phoenician characters. It seemed to suck in the light around it, so that it pulsed blackness.

He went into the kitchen. Next to the washing machine stood the safe, the containment facility for unwanted entities. Its thick iron door was carved with the same ornate script as the key. He’d been careful not to install it next to the fridge. Despite guarantees that the safe would be impermeable to all sorts of magic, Mark didn’t want to risk food contamination. It wouldn’t do to open the fridge and find the food covered in mould, or worse, as though he was living in a student flatshare.

Mark unlocked the safe door. The walls were solid lead. The latest theory was that magic existed as a very high frequency wave form. Lead worked as well against magic it as it did against gamma rays, provided you knew the right incantation. The same black light lurked inside the safe.

He went out to the hall, picked up the shoebox and heaved it into the kitchen.

‘I’ll ‘ave yer! I’ll ave yer! Wimp!’ the kobold poked another finger out of the box.

‘Not so smarmy now, are you? But I’m no wimp, and I’m not listening! La, la, la.’ Mark shoved the box into the safe.

‘La la? Call that magic, yer big nellie? Yer great big pansy!’ The kobold’s voice quietened in a foul-mouthed diminuendo as Mark shut the door. Silence. He locked it and went into the hall to put the key away.

Back in the kitchen, he heard snoring coming from the safe. He took his jacket off, looked at the label and put the jacket into the washing machine. He’d switch it on in the morning.

The owners of the infested house had paid well. Pat should be pleased with the initiative he’d shown, being proactive. Silly word. Lovely woman. His next door neighbour; one day he would get up the courage to tell her how he felt. Today, business partners. One day, maybe more. Mark sat for a moment, thinking of Pat’s smile, wondering why she’d never married and didn’t seem to have a partner. He didn’t think she was gay. Too busy with her career, he supposed, work took up all her emotional slack.

Mark had suggested going for a drink on Friday evening to celebrate her birthday. Perhaps he’d finally tell her. There was a spell for bravery, but he wanted to do it unaided. But, what if she didn’t feel the same? How could they go on working together?

Mark yawned. Tapping into his own will had taken it out of him. There was still the marking of his fourteen- and fifteen-year-old pupils’ English homework to be done. Two jobs is one too many, at my age, he thought. Although, teaching teenagers and dealing with demons were much the same thing.

He got up and walked over to the washing machine. The snoring coming from the safe grew louder as he took the jacket out and retrieved his red pen from the pocket. Good job he hadn’t been able to do any washing, it was bad enough having kobold slime all over the jacket without red ink as well. He put the jacket back and shut the door.

He sat down at the kitchen table and took an exercise book from the top of the pile. It read ‘A sonnet is like a poem, only it’s got 14.’ He circled the figure 14 and wrote ‘Fourteen’ in the margin. Then added ‘and fourteen what? Apples? Oranges?’ The last book in the pile contained some typed pages, at least they were easy to read. The material looked like it had come straight from Wikipedia, including hyperlinks the student hadn’t bothered to take out. But she deserved credit for doing a bit of research, and the information was correct. Mark wrote ‘well done. You’re a shining example of what can be achieved with a bit of work.’

The doorbell rang. Mark saw Pat’s outline through the frosted glass panel. He straightened his tie and let her in. She walked past him into the kitchen and put her bag on the table next to the books.

The Shallows

Merpeople are just like regular people, except that they’re hideous and alien and inscrutable. Okay, forget the regular people comparison. The point is, they sorta saved me from drowning after they sorta almost drown me and now we’re friends. Okay, acquaintances.

It was just a beautiful accident that caused them to swarm me that morning. But, don’t blame them. It was my own fault. I was fishing. They hate that. Or they hate rowboats. Or they hate the color orange. Or they love it. Or they were drawn by the smell of the sun-warmed Doritos I was eating. Anyway, no one is to blame for what happened.

Tuesday morning at sunup is the best time to fish. That’s just fact. The little gulf inlet that points a crooked finger at my sleepy Florida town is all but empty then. It’s often just me, a few retirees, and maybe a couple other kindred spirits with the dedication and strength of character to call off work in the name of the angler’s life.

See, it’s all about laying the groundwork. On Friday, I might start to have a cough. Maybe I run into a coworker over the weekend and maybe I’m not looking so hot. Monday, I heroically drag myself to work, though nobody thinks I should be there in my condition. Then, on Tuesday, I’m paddling out to my favorite spot and dropping the anchor before the sun has risen enough to burn off the fog. The moment I cast my line toward the shore and the sunrise, back toward the poor saps working there, and wedge a breakfast beer between my knees, I always know that I’m doing the right thing.

This last time was the best yet. The sky was cobalt, the breeze was warm, and I didn’t see another soul. Perfection. I was shooting for flounder, running my lure low against the seabed, and I figured I’d have a good buzz on and a flounder on the grill before I’d usually be pulling the squished PB&J outta my lunchbox.

Everything was going as planned until I noticed that I was drifting more than made sense. I reeled in my line, laid my rod in the boat, and turned to test the anchor rope. I figured, hoping the damn thing hadn’t come loose, that I had better reposition the anchor, but when I went to pull it up, I found the rope was taut. But, not just taut. It was vibrating with tension and seemed to be pulling me off to sea.

“That’s not good,” I said to nobody in particular.

I wiped Dorito-orange fingers on my safety-orange lifejacket and considered my options. I could cut the rope, but that seemed a little drastic. I could swim to shore. Even more drastic. I could wait a bit and see. Sounded reasonable.

I gave one more tug on the rope, just to be sure. It was tight as a steel cable. I looked off at the open water, which I was quickly approaching, and decided that I’d better “wait and see” with knife in hand. My little rowboat wasn’t really made for the open ocean.

I was just clicking open the latch on my tackle box to hunt up a knife when an unforeseen possibility forced me to alter my plan. The metal bracket to which the anchor line was attached creaked like an old screen door then it, along with the entire prow of the boat, was yanked underwater. A moment later, I felt the rest of my little boat disappear from under foot and I was left bobbing like a cork near the mouth of the inlet.

Turns out, I should have cut the rope. The water was unexpectedly cold, so it took me a moment to jumpstart my brain. I was back online and thinking, “huh, that was odd,” when I was quickly forced to rethink my whole understanding of “odd.”

Hands, maybe a dozen of them, started feeling me beneath the surface. I let out an involuntary squeal and tried to pull myself legs up out of the water, but there was nothing to pull against. Trembling, I forced myself to look down. Vague shapes. All around me.

I crossed shark off my terror checklist first. Sharks don’t gather round and gently paw their prey. As far as I know.

Something like hope rose up in me when I had the thought, “asshole divers,” but that possibility quickly faded. I could see arms and shoulders. Dark, slick heads. But, the bodies tapered and undulated off to an unseen distance, trailing strange, streamer-like appendages. They looked a bit like those stylized oriental paintings of dragons. With that observation, final horror knocked the wind out of me, just as I was jerked underwater so hard I thought my hips had come out of joint.

I didn’t think I was going to die. I knew I was going to die. And I’ll say this for myself: I kept my eyes open. I almost certainly pissed my pants (for all that matters underwater), but I kept my eyes open. I’m strangely proud of that. Though, I really didn’t see much.

I felt like I was being jerked in several directions at once and I was sure that I was about to come apart at the seams. My legs were on fire. Then, I remember a moment of calm, followed by the burn and pressure as one of them bit me just beneath my right ear. Then they left.

For just a second, I registered obsidian eyes staring into my own, then sharp claws parted my lips and fingers like ice were thrust down my throat. It hurt. Everything hurt.

Other hands must have been shredding my clothing, but I didn’t feel it at the time. I just felt the frozen fingers in my mouth and the white-hot agony of the bites on my neck as the skin split wider and wider.

When the seawater poured down into the expanding wounds and met the fingers in my throat, iron-hard arms wound around my torso and began compressions, forcing the last of the air from my body and from my life. The pain in my neck and throat shifted. It was like opening a window and finding new air, sweet with a thousand smells you couldn’t describe, and realizing that you’d been holding your breath.

Is it weird to say I didn’t even notice when I stopped having legs? Well, I didn’t. It was all about breath for me. Trading air for water. Invigorating is too small a word.

I seemed to get new eyes thrown into the bargain as well. After the change, I could see everything. My broken little boat lying on the seabed. The shreds of my old clothes. Everything. I could pick out every fish for a hundred yards. I could almost count the scales on the merpeople as they swam back out to into the vastness of the open water. Fast as torpedoes. Without a single word or sign. Nothing at all.

I like to think they’ll be back. I’ve even caught glimpses of them out at the edge of sight. But, whenever I swim out of the inlet, the vastness makes me dizzy and I feel like I’m falling in every direction. They’ll be back for me. I figure they can’t just abandon me without showing me the ropes. I figure this is the equivalent of merpeople hazing, and we’ll all be closer friends for it in the end.

We’ll probably all laugh about this someday.

It’s hard to say how much my mind has changed. I still love flounder, though it tastes sweeter than ever before. I remember all of my life on land, and I get a giddy little thrill every time I realize that I’ll never have to go back to work again. I don’t think I’d even fit in my cubicle anymore.

I watch the swimmers and the dolphins. I study the comings and goings of the boats overhead. I visit with manatees and I toy with the idea of scarring the hell out of divers, but I always think better of it. And, most of all, I wait for my people to return. I’m the king of this sunny little inlet, but I’m alone.

Maybe some day I’ll get up the courage to swim out into the wide world and look for them. Maybe, but not today. Today, I’m pretty sure it’s Tuesday. There are more flounder here than I could ever eat and I even have some beer left. All in all, things could be worse.

Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a day. Make a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a lifetime. Plus, he’ll get to see if a manatee can get drunk. What’s better than that?

Jarod K. Anderson formerly taught English at Ohio University. Currently he works at
the largest botanical gardens in Ohio. Jarod writes about plants by day and robots, ghosts, and magic by night. It’s a good arrangement. His work has appeared in Escape Pod, Ray Gun Revival, Eclectica Magazine, Fourteen Hills, and elsewhere.