Month: May 2015

The White Lady

For most, it was impossible to walk the Paths of the Dead without first dying oneself. But for those who still practiced the old ways there were occasions when one of the living might walk amongst the spirits. It happened rarely; on long nights, when the moon was just a pale sliver behind dark clouds, and the air was icy as the breath of the dead.

Mati had spent days preparing herself for her journey to the Paths; fasting to the point of starvation, denying herself anything more than a few minutes’ worth of sleep at a time. She even refused water, and her mouth was so dry that her tongue felt like sand scraping the inside of her cheek.

Now she looked like a wild, starving beast, with ravenous red eyes and ropey muscle stretched around taut skin. The bones of her rib cage and shoulders protruded through her skin, and she looked lanky and gaunt, like the shriveled husk shed off by a molting insect.

She sat before a blazing campfire and slicked her hair back with mud she’d gathered from the riverbed. She did this until her hair was plastered flat across the back of her skull and down her neck. After this, she spread white ash across her skin until she was covered completely, and stood out against the backdrop of the night sky like a small knot of dense fog. She crushed bones with a mortar and pestle until they were a powder, mixed them with dried blood until they congealed into a paste, and then traced the mixture across every jutting bone of her ribcage, across her sharp cheekbones and the ridges above her eyes. After she was done Mati looked down into a basin filled with water; and when she looked into the murk and realized she could no longer recognize herself, and could only see the bones, she knew she was ready.

The intention of the ritual, handed down through generations by the elders of her village, was to take her to the brink of death. To ruin the body, but leave the mind intact. It would give her the strength of the dead, the strength to walk the Paths. But unlike the dead, she would retain her will, her purpose. Her mother had undertaken the same ritual, her grandmother; even Mati herself, years and years ago, though as a child she hadn’t grasped the symbolic nature of it. It had just been one more trial in a life full of hardships.

As the moon rose, casting its pale light down, as the wind swelled and shook the leaves from the trees, Mati could feel a chill spread through her body. Starting in her toes, and then crawling up her spine. She felt rejuvenated and sick all at the same time. The ritual had worked.

To the west the sun had sunk below the treeline, and long, web-like shadows stretched across the plains. Mati ran towards the sun with no clothing to protect her from the cold, no shoes to guard her feet from the rocks and brambles. The only possessions she brought with her from the living world were a small red pendant which she clutched in her right hand, and a sharp, ivory handled knife she gripped tightly in her left. The knife, she knew, would afford her little protection where she was going. But it made her feel at ease just to hold it.

The red pendant, though, that was of the utmost importance. The pendant, and what it carried. Without it all that she’d done, and all that she was about to do, would be for nothing.

Mati had only been to the Paths once before, as a child. It had been a rite of passage in her village, back when they still practiced the old ways. She’d only been escorted as far as the outskirts of town, then told she had to go the rest of the way on her own. “It’s our most important lesson.” Her mother, Tante, had told her. “Loss of a loved one should always hurt. It should never be easy to forget. The good memories always come with pain.”

And pain there had been.

Mati lept over the decayed remnants of fallen trees as she ran, snapping brittle branches and slicing through thick vines if they threatened to slow her pace. It began to rain fiercely, but the jungle was so thick with vegetation that scarce few raindrops were able to pierce the canopy. Lightning flashed high above, imperceptible as the echo of a whisper. Most of the rain simply slid down branches and dripped off of thick, flat leaves; glistening like thousands of spider-webs in the faint light of the moon.

Plain Girl

When I got home from school Dad was hunched over a jar of peanut butter at the kitchen counter. I hadn’t seen him in a while so I grabbed an apple and leaned in the doorway.

“Hi, honey,” he said, wiping his mouth. “How was school?”

I shrugged and bit into my apple.

His face was stubbled, his hair was a mess, and it looked like he hadn’t showered since the last time I saw him. When he’s onto something big he can be gone for days at a time, coming home just long enough to shower and stuff his face with whatever he could find in the cabinets. Mom didn’t like him going out and she wasn’t shy about telling him. He was too old, she said. He had a family to think about. I never said anything, but I kind of agreed. Sometimes I had nightmares about him leaving and not coming back. Still, I wasn’t as worried as Mom. A lot of girls like to think their dads are superheroes. Mine actually is.

So I should tell you that my dad’s the Sentinel. Like the Sentinel. It’s not like anybody knows his identity or anything, but try having a date over when your dad’s standing there—and I’m not even kidding, his head almost touches the ceiling—with his meaty fists crossed over his chest, cracking his knuckles every two seconds and grunting like a silverback gorilla.

So when I invited Scott Peters over I was kind of hoping that Dad wouldn’t even be in the same zip code. The thing is, I’d had a crush on Scott all year. He had this blue car that was so shiny you could see your reflection in it, and his hair. Sometimes in class he put his feet on his desk and leaned back, and his hair fell across his shoulders like a movie star’s.

“I invited a friend over tonight,” I said. “Hope that’s okay.”

“Of course it is,” Dad said. “Which friend? Laura?”

I cleared my throat. “Scott,” I said.

Dad paused with a spoonful of peanut butter halfway to his mouth. I could see his wheels turning, but I was his daughter and he loved me, and that meant leverage.

We held eyes. We’d played this game before and I was better at it. I cocked an eyebrow and took another bite of my apple. “And it would be so cool if you’d give us a little time to watch a movie and maybe study,” I said. “I know you’re really busy, anyway.”

“You mean leave you alone?” Dad said. “With a boy?”

“Don’t you trust me?” I said, batting my eyes. This was a trick he’d taught me when I was little. It was my most effective weapon against him.

He grunted something unintelligible and I knew I’d won. He brought the peanut butter the rest of the way to his mouth. It fell off his spoon and plopped on the counter.

Scott pulled up at six. Dad stayed just long enough to grill Scott with questions and glare at him a little. “I’ll be back in a couple hours,” he said. “If you need anything, just call.” He lingered at the door a moment. “I probably don’t have to tell you this, but don’t do anything crazy. And if you get hungry I left potato wedges in the—“

“Dad,” I said, crossing my arms.

“Okay, okay,” he said, shouldering a duffel bag. For a second I wondered where he was going, but the thought disappeared quickly. I had more important things to worry about.


I was there in the room when the policeman told my wife I was dead.

“A terrible accident,” he said. “An explosion. There couldn’t have been much warning, the particle collider…” he trailed away. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”

I wanted to shout, to scream. Instead I held my hands before me and saw nothing but the crimson carpet. I wept and wondered that even my tears were invisible.

I was there when Hannah told Lisa that her daddy wouldn’t be coming home. They held each other until they both fell asleep, their eyes red and their faces pale.

“I’m here, Hannah,” I could have said. “I’m here with you.” But instead I held my silence, ashamed and afraid of my condition.

I attended my own funeral and wept as the empty coffin was carried away.

“Such a terrible thing,” Uncle Joseph had consoled Hannah. “So terrible.”

But, as is the wont of terrible things, time passed and they became less terrible. Hannah began to smile more and Lisa didn’t cry herself to sleep so often. The trees in the garden turned a burnished orange and then powdered white and then a flushing green and occasional laughter could be heard through the house and it made my heart cold to hear it.

I should have felt joy in their happiness, but a man can turn melancholy, drifting quiet and alone in his own house, unnoticed and unseen.

Was I a ghost? Was I truly dead? Was this some kind of hell I had brought upon myself?

But I couldn’t be dead, could I? Did the dead eat? Did they drink? I had to do both, and then hide in the basement, shivering against the cold until I had digested the food.

“Lisa, you’re sleeping at your Nan’s tonight.” Hannah stood in front of the mirror putting on her earrings. She was wearing makeup and a red dress. The trees in the garden were heavy with snow.

I roused myself in the corner. What day was it? Every day merged into one when there was nothing to do but wander disconsolately around the house.

“Lisa?” Hannah shouted. “You going to get ready?” Hannah sighed and checked herself in the mirror, turning sideways to look at her figure.

His name was Steven and he smiled a lot.

Lisa would look at him with serious eyes and Steven would smile and tell jokes and help around the house.

Nobody smiled that much. Had I ever smiled that much? When they were out, I would go through the photographs and see myself smiling. I stood in front of mirrors and saw nothing.

“When’s Steven coming?” Lisa called out. “He should be here by now.”

I started in my corner. Had I fallen asleep? My head hurt. Lisa sounded excited.

“He’ll be here in a minute.” Hannah smiled as she washed the pots.

I clasped a hand to my head. Lisa liked this guy. She was only six. Or was she seven now? The birds chattered on budding trees and sunlight streamed through the kitchen window. The brightness hurt my eyes and my head.

My family. I had to protect my family.

Lisa was asleep when they returned and Steven carried her from the car and into the house. The sight made me weep and clench my fists.

I sneaked into the car and it seemed a long time before he came from the house.

He was evil, this man. An intruder. I wanted to kill him as he drove. No, first I wanted proof of his evil intentions. I wanted to know what it was I was saving my family from.

I lay on the back seat and watched the ghastly glow of the streetlights smear the darkness of the night.

Steven’s lair was a fashionable apartment overlooking a fashionable canal. I imagined pornography parading on walls and handcuffs hanging from bedposts. Instead I got an apartment that was neat and fashionably sparse.

He checked his messages when he got in. Five calls to his mother. He would ignore them and chat to women on dating sites. But instead he called his mum on his mobile.

He sat in a reclining chair, loosening his tie. “I do have a mobile, Mum.” He took off his shoes and placed them next to his chair. “Well, if you used the one I bought you.”

I looked at a bookshelf. He liked history and sports biographies.

“I’ve been out. Yeah, with a woman.”

The kitchen was tidy. The fridge had lots of meals for one.

“I’ve had women before, just never wanted to tell you about them. This one’s different.”

I could tell he was smiling as he spoke.

“No, just different. A widow. Poor guy died in an accident.”

I looked in the bedroom. Flowers on the table.

“One. She’s sweet. Misses her dad, course she does.” He laughed. “She’s great. Hannah. No, I don’t want to rush it, but I think we could make a go of it. Listen, are you going to be in on Sunday? I’d like you to meet her.”

My head hurt and my heart hurt. I slipped out through the door, closing it quietly behind me.

It was a long way home under dark skies and glaring streetlights.

I slipped into the bed as quietly as I could. Hannah rested her head on my shoulder, snuggling in and breathing deep. “Dan,” she whispered, half smiling. “Dan.” She draped an arm across my chest.

I smelled her hair and held her close.

When the first breath of sunlight touched the window, I went to see Lisa. She was fast asleep clutching a toy bear. I stroked her hair. “I love you,” I whispered. She clutched the bear tighter and smiled.

My hand shook as I opened the door. The morning sun was shining, and as I took one last look back at the house, I saw my footprints were already fading in the dew-wet grass.

The Keeper

It started with a hint dropped in the depths of my stomach, like a key, while I was asleep. When I awoke, my senses were sharper, as if my body had been nearsighted for years and I finally found the right prescription.

Later that day, my new wife–we’d been married just shy of six months—was getting ready to go out. She was talking to me out of the closet over the music of metal hangers sliding.

“Lisa’s man dumped her. She needs a shoulder,” she said, and immediately followed with an exclamation point of a hanger roll. I came and stood by the closet door. She was wearing a black bra and blue panties, mismatched, just the way I liked it, and her thin arms moved through the clothes fast, searching like trained dogs. She turned.

“Oh Henry, you scared me.”

I stood quietly, thinking. Her hands rested on a navy blue silk blouse, fingers feeling the fabric.

“What?” She asked.

“Who’s Lisa?”

A hint of color bloomed on her pale face. “My friend,” she said, tasting the words.

I wanted to say, you don’t have any friends, but that seemed rude, so I said, “Where’d you meet?”

“At the coffee shop,” she answered too fast.

I nodded. It was possible. But as I began thinking, I realized, she’d been going out every night for the past month, or longer. How could I have missed it?

“What about last night?” I asked.

“What about it?” She said, chewing a nail.

“Did Lisa’s man dump her yesterday too?”

“No, just today.”

“What did you do last night then?” I asked. I wanted to ask “what was your excuse last night,” but I was afraid to, in case my suspicions were true. What would I do? Would I leave her? I didn’t think I could. But could I live knowing she’s sleeping around?

“Last night, I went shopping for clothes. Honestly, Henry, you’re being weird. You never cared before,” she turned back to her task.