Beast and the Beauties – Part 2

Winter was long that year. The snows piled high around the outside walls, shutting in the broken houses out front so that only the thatch showed, piling nearly a man’s height on top of the walls before tilting and falling inward, to leave little melting patches in the summer garden. Ice lashed the trees and cracked their limbs, and sleet drove against the locked front gates. Nobody traveled, and even in the forest, the animals stayed in their dens, huddled and freezing.

Winter was long, but the Beast was glad, for every snowfall lengthened the time Cecilia stayed in his company. He liked that. It mattered nothing to him that he must eat alone and quickly, gulping down his meat and lapping up his drink, away from the dining room and at late and early hours. It mattered nothing that he must stay hidden, walking silently and standing at the ends of halls and huddling outside doorways to speak. It mattered nothing that Cecilia knew little of lords’ affairs, and nothing of government, and spoke only from the ignorant view of a land-worker. All that mattered, to the Beast, was that she was here, and that she walked in his halls and spoke to him.

She still fairly lived outside in the gardens. Early in the enchanted gardens’ Spring, Cecilia went out to each of the rose-bushes and gathered the dried, curling-brown hips. She returned to the house and cracked them open, piling the seeds by color, and the next week she dug up several long troughs of earth in a square, in a grassy area west of the house, away from the main gardens. The Beast watched bemusedly, and asked her what she did, but Cecilia only smiled and said, “watch.” So the Beast watched as she finally finished, and then as she went around, rose seeds in one hand, dipping down to push them into the ground and push earth over them. She planted the whole square with rose seeds, and when she finished she stood, and wiped her hands, and said, “now we wait.”

They waited, and as the garden was enchanted, it took only a week for the first sprouts to show. Cecilia went out every day to look, and she brought out water, and tobacco-juice to kill the aphids, and asked the Beast to send the servants with fertilizer, that she spread thinly around all the sprouts.

They waited another week and the sprouts were knee-high. Another week and they were up to Cecilia’s hip. She brought out long thin branches she had whittled and stuck them in the earth between certain blooms, and curled the vining roses’ stems about them; she had the servants bring a stone bench and place it inside the square, and there she sat nearly every day after, working her stitching or tending to the roses. The Beast could not come close – there was nothing nearby to hide behind – but he lurked by the castle’s wall and spoke across to Cecilia, and in the evenings when she went in, he had the servants bring torches while he lay on the stone bench and surveyed her garden.

Beast and the Beauties – Part 1

In a prosperous country where fairies and men still lived beside one another, there was once a king who had three sons. The two older ones were everything a king could want in princes: upright, diligent, attentive to their duties, and honorable in every way. The oldest was set to inherit, the middle to be a great duke and adviser to the first, and the king was in every way satisfied with them.

But the youngest, oh, the youngest! The king had tried to have him raised in the same manner as the elder two, but something had gone terribly wrong, and the youngest prince was not at all like his brothers. He was diligent, so far as it suited him – but the moment he tired of study, nothing could induce him to remain sitting, and he ran wild about the palace. He had the semblances of honor when in court – but when not under the king’s eye he broke his promises, insulted the character of others, and showed himself to lack integrity. He was impatient with both man and beast, striking his servants and his animals when they did not obey him exactly, and he was discourteous in both speech and manner. Worst, he was ungenerous, and though the king provided him with any manner of riches, he hoarded them jealously, and would not part with a single golden cup of it.

This distressing behavior continued for years, and worsened as the prince grew. His older brothers looked on in concern, and the king as well, for how could he, in good conscience, trust the rule of any part of his kingdom to such a prince?

The queen, though, had a plan. She was of a mixed line, her mother being fairy and her father being human, and so in her blood ran the fair folk’s love for pure and perfect justice. The prince’s failings had long rankled her inhuman side, and she thought perhaps to test the prince, and if he failed, to teach him a harsh lesson.

So she explained her plan to the king, and he agreed reluctantly, for he did not want his son to fail. That autumn he sent the young prince to a remote castle, with instructions to care for the lands surrounding, and to guide the people through the winter. It was a tall order, but the elder two princes had been doing such things for years, and the youngest prince had clamored long that it should be his turn, too. The prince was delighted at the appointment and left without even a goodbye to his family.

The queen waited a fortnight. Then, one day, she called on her fairy blood and transformed herself into an old, old woman, and went to the young prince’s lands to see how they fared.

Well, it was just finishing up harvest, and so they did not fare too poorly. The people were still gathering their grains and storing them, milling them, and preparing for the winter. There was some little complaint that the prince rarely heard their charges, and dispensed justice indifferently. Very well, the queen thought to herself, and went to see the prince.

She petitioned at the door, calling herself a traveler and hoping for a place to stay. She waited in the courtyard for perhaps an hour before servants led her to the kitchens and gave her a meager bowl of soup and a crust off a two-day-old loaf, then told her to sleep in the corner. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was asked.

And the next morning the queen left, and went home, and told the king what she had found.

A month later, as winter was properly coming on and the trees were losing the last of their leaves, she changed herself again, and went again to the prince’s lands.

Now, the people were discontent, for there was less grain left from the harvest than they had hoped: the prince had taxed them highly, just before winter, and kept his own stores full while the people outside could do nothing but hope there would be enough to last winter through. He listened still more rarely to the cases put before him; people petitioned him and waited hours before admittance, where, if they were allowed speech, their charges were dispensed with quickly and sharply, with no consideration of the actual case. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.

She waited long at the door before finally being admitted to the courtyard, where she saw servants sitting about and talking, or sleeping, and a very few running frantically to their actual tasks. She waited another long while before being admitted to the kitchens, handed a five-day-old crust, and then being ordered to the stables to sleep. Very well, said the old, old woman, and did as she was told. The next morning the queen left. She went home, and told the king in anger of what she had found.

A long, cold month later, she changed again, and went again to visit the prince.
This time it was hard midwinter, and the people suffered. The prince had levied a second tax – smaller, certainly, than the first, but enough to keep himself in comfort and his kitchens full. He never heard petitions now; the mayor returned from the castle with edicts, and people complained in taverns about the prince’s disinterest and his gluttonous manner. Very well, thought the queen to herself, and went to see the prince.

She was not admitted. No one stood at the back gate, and, finally, with a bit of magic, she let herself in, and wandered the courtyard. The servants lounged in the stables or stood about the kitchen, talking or playing at dice and cards. Finally one shouted to the others – where had this old woman come from?

Autumn in the Woods

Lonely, the ghost of Autumn leaned against her tree and stretched her legs along the edge of her grave. A breeze sipped uselessly at her warmth, though she still tucked her arms into her dress. Her bones clawed from the earth, brown with the rot of years. Autumn envied them. Her eleven years remained untouched by the passage of time.

She prayed most nights, when the stars were out and the animals scuttled by in small packs. In the beginning she prayed for life. Then, as the years rolled by and she began to know the animals by name, she prayed only for a friend. She prayed for anyone to know she was there beside the tree. Anyone other than the devil-man who had put her there.

That October day, with her arms tucked in her dress and her eyes scanning the fogged horizon, a boy answered her prayers. At first she thought he was the devil-man, but his feet fell lightly and without malice. She dared to peek around the tree and saw that he was young, her own age at most. He had scraggly brown hair and boots that looked too big for his feet. He had red lips that looked pretty in the setting sun.

The boy saw her and Autumn was very nervous. She stepped timidly around the tree, her hands clasped at her waist. She wished that she could change her clothes. Her dress was tattered, her flesh grimy with dirt. Her hair hung in a mess of knots and bugs.

“Hello,” said the boy.

Autumn had not spoken in many years. “Hu-low,” she managed.

The boy stared at her, scrutinizing. He wore a striped shirt and torn jeans and had a long stick in his hands. “Are you lost?” he asked.

“No,” she said curtly. “Are you?”

“I’ve got a compass,” he said. He showed her his compass.

Autumn stepped softly toward him, but not so far from the tree that the shadows would come.

“I heard you crying,” said the boy.

“Oh.”

He went to her, swishing his stick high and low. Up above, a squirrel scurried along a branch. “Why are your clothes so dirty.”

“Because I live in the woods.”

The boy smiled. “Nice place to live. Do you get cold at night?”

“Usually not.”

He extended a hand. “My name’s Davie.”

Autumn liked his name and politely told him so as they shook hands. Dirt crunched out when their palms met.

“It’s really David,” he said. “But I like Davie better.”

“Me too.” She pushed her hair behind her ears. “Would you like to sit with me?”

Davie hesitated and then leaned upon his stick. “Are you sure you aren’t lost? I live just outside the woods.” He pointed into the distance. “You can’t see it from here, but off that way.”

“I’m sure,” she said.

Davie looked at her doubtfully, and Autumn feared he might leave.

“Please, stay,” she said hurriedly. “Just for a few minutes?”

A Place for Lost Things

Empty farmland and the occasional rambler: that’s the usual view from my bedroom window of a weekend. That’s why I noticed her; even wrapped up in a thick winter coat and a daft purple bobble hat, the way she moved dragged me to the window to get a better look. She was patting her coat and repeatedly checking the pockets. I knew that dance. I grabbed my own coat and went out to be of assistance. She looked up. When she smiled I realised she was quite a bit younger than me. Hound-on-the-prowl to dirty-pervert in a heartbeat.

“Saw you from my window,” I said. “Over at the farmhouse. You lost something?” I kept my distance so not to worry her.

She was on her knees scrabbling about in the grass at the foot of the stile marking the start of the Meriden-Blythe footpath. “Yes,” she said. “I think I dropped some keys around here.” There was a trace of something local in her voice, it bubbled beneath a dominant Kent accent.

Her car was parked up on the opposite embankment, the driver’s door open into the road. “Shall I shut that for you?” I asked. “There’s not much traffic comes through here but what does comes hurtling through like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Thank you,” she said.

I went over and when it slammed shut I said: “Wouldn’t want you damaging your car and losing your keys now.”

I climbed over the stile and looked in the long grass clumped there, crouching so as not to get my knees dirty. “Am I looking in the right place?”

She looked up at me and shrugged with her eyebrows. “I opened the car with them when I got back from my walk so they can’t be far. They must have fallen. Honestly, I’m not normally like this. I’m usually the one shaking their head and tutting at other people losing—”

“Don’t blame yourself; things are always wandering off around here. I’ve seen people before doing just what you’re doing. Patting themselves down and all that.”

She laughed politely. She struck me as the sort that maybe did lots politely.

“I’m not even joking either,” I said. “The bloke that used to live in the house across from me–”

“The white cottage?” she asked.

“That’s it. He used to call round here the Birch Lane Triangle. His stuff was always going walkabout.”

“There’s a lot of space around to here to lose things in,” she said. And then added: “It’s so lovely.”

“Two miles either side of us and I’m the only one living here at the moment,” I said.

“No one’s in the white cottage?”

“Not at the moment. Not since Rog went.”

“Rog who loses things.”

“That’s the fella.” I shuffled along a bit to look in another bit of grass, moving like some sort of man-crab.

“Have you ever lost anything in the Birch Lane triangle,” she asked.

“Only my heart and soul,” I said. “But that’s divorce for you.”

Another laugh from her: polite.

“No, seriously,” I said. “I don’t have enough stuff to lose. I’m only renting that place up there while I get on my feet. What I’ve got is all in a garage down in…” I shut myself up. “Don’t worry, we’ll find them. Rog used to say things always turned up eventually.”

“I hope he’s right,” she said, and we carried on the search in silence.

Felt like ten minutes had gone by when she said: “I wish I’d brought my gloves today.” She blew hot air into her cupped hands.

“You cold?” I asked. It was a stupid question. My hands were already numb. Not expecting a yes, I asked: “Do you want a cup of tea or something? My kitchen’s just there and maybe we can warm up and come back out in a bit.”

“Yeah, go on then.” I can’t say for certain, but it didn’t sound like she was just being polite.

We didn’t talk on the short walk to my place; I might’ve believed she wasn’t standing next to me at all.

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.

And Down We Fall

‘Always thought she was the cat’s mother, that one,’ my mom says, and across the road I can see Mrs. Trent dangling the bloody bed sheets out of the bedroom window, showing off because her dumb, lanky daughter’s become one.

My mom shuffles me inside and shuts the door; stomps through to the kitchen and back to making tea, flicking the radio on to drown out all the cheering and clapping and back-slapping. I don’t know why she bothers, the band will be here soon, making a racket with their horns and their trumpets; half-deaf old codgers in red suits and brass buttons, playing hymns over the screaming as the lord does his work.

It’s cold in the kitchen, and there’s a right bitter breeze coming in from the broken window -our Sal ripped the cardboard out when she forgot her key- and I almost ask mom if we can light the fire but I know that she’s saving the last of the coal until we’re near freezing.

“Put another jumper on,’ she says, as if reading my mind, snapping the radio off when Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ starts playing. I watch as she mashes corned beef and potato together and shapes in into wonky blobs, ready for frying. I do that, usually. I like the squish and squelch of it around my fingers, and nobody can make a neater circle than me, but I know better than to say anything. She’s the same every time it happens, her face gets that look and she’ll go off on one if you even dare breathe near her.

She melts lard in the burnt frying pan, and lights the nub of a cigarette, and stares out through the garden window as the hash crackles and browns, as the flames hiss as water from the pan of smelly cabbage bubbles over.

The front door slams, and I hear our Sal before I see her.

“That bloody Maggie Trent?” She shouts, and barges in and throws her bag on the table, her dark hair all over the place and her nose pink with cold.

“Watch your mouth,” my mom says, nodding with her head at Sal to move her bag so that she can put the plates down. My sister throws it on the floor, and a bottle of nail varnish skids out, and a new purple scarf. She must be nicking again, as she spent all her wages on those stupid platform boots that she can’t walk in. She picks them up before mom can see, and looks at me as if to say, and you keep your big mouth shut.

“I can’t believe he picked that Maggie,’ Sal says, ‘pissy knickers we used to call her at school, dopey mare.’ When nobody replies she slumps down into the chair with a sigh and starts biting her nails.

“And stop that filthy habit,” Mom says, sliding the plates across.

“Christ! Can I do anything?!”

I pick up the cutlery and put my drawing to the side, before mom starts on me. It’s an angel, just like the one that has been coming for the girls, and I’ve given it bloody fingers and sharp teeth and black eyes that I coloured in so hard that I nearly ripped the paper.

Boring hash and mouldy vegetables, again. We’ve had the same thing for days, since that grumpy old cow in the shop up the road stopped mom from putting stuff on the slate. “And I’m Bo bleeding Derek,’ she said, when I told her that mom would pay her next week.

We eat in silence. The cabbage is mushy and the hash is burned, but I’m so hungry I don’t care. “Eat us out of house and home, you will,” my mom used to joke, when I was a little girl, but that’s when she was seeing that fella who got that money off his gran. She doesn’t say it now. It isn’t a joke now.

I look up to lick the last of the mash off my knife, running my tongue over its blunt edges, and I see that mom’s staring at our Sal across the table, the way a cat looks at a bird in the garden, her puffy eyes like slits.

“Wha-?’ Sal mumbles, through a mouthful of food.

My mom’s eyebrows come down, and then she gets up; the chair pushed back so hard that the cheap lino crumples around its legs. She races over to Sal; grabs her and pulls her hair back, like she’s going to tie it into a ponytail.

“What’s this?” she says, pointing at what looks like a bruise on her neck, and my sister goes as red as ketchup, jerks her head back and tries to pull her hair back over it.

“It’s nothing,” Sal says, trying to get up, but my mom’s bony fingers are in her shoulders, keeping her pressed down on the seat.

“That’s how it starts you soft sod, are there any more?” She asks, grabbing Sal’s chin and jerking it up.

“Get off, mom,” Sal says, struggling, but mom’s strong and I think any minute now I’m going to hear our Sal’s neck crack.

“Bugger off!”

“They leave signs, they do, before they come-”

“Bugger off!”

“Let me check Sal, around the back-”

“It’s just a lovebite, a bleeding lovebite, get off!”

My mom jumps back like our Sal’s slapped her.

“From whom?” She says, speaking all cold and posh like the Queen all of a sudden; her face all twisted like she’s sucking a lemon. She stares at Sal like she doesn’t even know who she is, and our Sal just looks at her feet. In the quiet I can hear the Hallelujahs outside, and the cymbals crashing, but it feels noisier inside; inside my head.

“Tommy,” Sal says, at last, the word only half out of her gob before my mom jumps on her.

“That Baxter boy? Jesus Sal, don’t you want more for yourself?”

“I’m not going to marry him or nothing!”

“Just going to make a tart of yourself, then?” my mom shouts and our Sal flinches, but mom’s just getting going so she won’t be able to stop her now. ‘You need to be different, Sal, you can’t be getting your drawers off for any Tom, Dick, or Harry, you need to respect yourself, get a good man, shit sticks around here, my god, shit sticks…”

“And you’d know,” our Sal says, her voice rising, her cheeks burning, and I want to tell her to shut up, because I know she’s going to get it, but she carries on, “which of your fancy men is coming round tonight? Bob? No, he packed you in, didn’t he. Mike? Oh no, he cleared off too, Ray? Maybe –” and then it all goes off and mom’s cracked Sal around the face and she’s calling her a cheeky bitch and telling her to get out of her house and Sal’s shouting and crying and the table’s going and there’s milk all over the place and then the doors are slamming so hard that the whole house rattles and I sit with my head in my hands as all the noise goes up the chimney, and into heaven, and into the ears of an angel.

A Canvased Soul

Sariah Williamson was born purple and blue but not because she wasn’t breathing. She leaked colors, warm colors when she was happy and cool when she was sad. The nurses cleaned her up cautiously and handed her to her mother, and Sariah’s skin sweat shades of orange as she nursed at her mother’s breast.

Fearing their daughter’s life would be under a microscope somewhere, the Williamsons fled. They found a back country town few people wanted to visit and made a home for themselves. And Sariah would have grown up happy there had it not been for her mother’s discovery.

One morning when Sariah had soaked her cloth diaper, Sariah’s mother stripped her of her clothes and placed her naked on the newspaper. As her mother went about doing the laundry, Sariah leaked happy colors onto the paper. When her mother returned, she found a wonderful masterpiece under her daughter’s bum. She took it into town to show a friend and a passerby bought it on the spot. “It’s just so beautiful,” he had said.

From that day on, Sariah’s mother would place her down on a canvas to nap, and as the naked babe dreamt, the canvas would fill with colors that dazzled her parents and art collectors alike. And soon these paintings were sold all over the world.

Sariah grew older, creating masterpieces from her sweat and tears. Her parents built her a studio where she would strip her clothes off and ponder the day’s emotions over a canvas. She’d think about her poor brothers and sister who were constantly criticized by their parents for not being as gifted as her. The canvas would swirl in blues and greens. Sariah would think about learning to drive in secret, for she was the only Williamson child forbidden from doing so, and the canvas would soak in oranges and reds.

After the piece was finished, Sariah would promptly then take a picture and send it to her agent who would then find a buyer. The Williamsons grew wealthy and their little cabin in the woods became a mansion with four wings, a high fence, and an Olympic-sized pool within it, though Sariah didn’t swim in it often because she’d dye the water for a week.

But lately, Sariah’s paintings were growing dim. “I think I’m running out of soul,” she explained to her mother.

“That’s ridiculous. How does someone run out of their soul?”

“I don’t know,” Sariah said. “I just feel really tired all the time, all dried up and spent.”

“Well, you can’t take a break. Perhaps you should drink more water,” her mother said.

Her father wouldn’t let Sariah take a break either. “How will we pay for all our things? Would you have your brothers and sisters wear hand-me-downs?” he asked.

Remember New Roanoke

Two roiling suns scorched the desert landscape as the gaunt man stumbled toward the bivouac site. Commodore Tina Morales wiped the sweat off her brow and took another glimpse through her binos. More bone than man, the colonist seemed almost feral. His shredded and grimy olive drab coveralls hung from his skeletal frame like a parachute.

The commodore had planned to send an expedition out to New Roanoke within forty-eight hours. She’d wanted to go sooner, but her command team had needed time to analyze the probes’ data.

Keying the comms device secured around her right ear, she said, “Reaper Six, this is Falcon Six, SITREP. Over.”

“Falcon Six. Reaper Six. Wait one,” Colonel Carlson replied.

She rolled her eyes. Space marines. Any chance they had to assert their authority over a fleet officer, they took it. Still, she was the highest-ranking officer on the expedition. Her only crime was she wasn’t a space marine, but she played along, because she needed them more than they needed her. “Reaper Six. Standing By.”

“Falcon Six. Identified male survivor at five-point-zero klicks and closing. Permission to engage with lethal force?”

Carlson had always been trigger happy, but this request was absurd. She was convinced he was the wrong man for this mission. She needed a ground commander who saw the world in shades of gray, not through a black and white prism.

She keyed her comms device. “Negative. Stand down. Acknowledge.”

“Negative. Contact could be infected. Over.”

An alien pathogen was a logical hypothesis. Over the last fifty years, something had reduced the colony’s population from the two hundred and fifty souls on the original colony ship’s manifest to fewer than ten.

What Morales found even more intriguing were the thousands of heat signatures remote probes had detected beyond the eastern mountains, but remote DNA spectral analysis had determined there was no human genetic material there, so Admiral Chu had limited operations to within fifty klicks of New Roanoke.

The intel was a one-time deal. The United Earth Ship Eldridge would be moving on toward the nearest star in twenty-four hours. After that, the expedition would be on its own and Morales would be in charge.

“Reaper Six. Engage with stun weapons only. Acknowledge.”

A long pause followed. “Acknowledged.”

“Reaper Six. Give me a SITREP in fifteen minutes. Out.”

Two six-wheeled mobiles carrying a space marine platoon streamed past. The marines seemed frisky this morning, almost too frisky. They’d never operated in a one-point-one gee environment before, and she worried their bodies might break before their enthusiasm did.

Morales surveyed the horizon. She still couldn’t get over seeing two suns in Alpha Centauri Prime’s sky, and knowing that somewhere out there laid the answer to the great mystery that had spurred her parents to leave Earth in an interstellar generation ship forty-four years earlier. Three quarters of the crew had been born in space, and this was the first time most of them, including her, had ever set foot on a terrestrial surface.

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.