Meanwhile back at The Rose and The Thorn

“For the love of God stop!” Flor yelled from the bathroom.
Stephen looked up from The Fall Of the House of Usher and scowled. The only thing he hated more than twelve year old girls were loud twelve year old girls. The TV’s volume increased.
Shrouded in a white towels and fragrant steam, Flor swung open the bathroom door. “What in the hell is your problem? We are going to get called by the front desk. Stop screwing with the TV.”
Stephen flipped a page.
“Where’s the god dammed remote, cretin?”
“Excellent word choice,” Stephen replied still without looking up. “If only your eyesight was as sharp as your vocabulary. I have no remote, milady.”
Gripping the towel wrapped around her hair with one hand, Flor rooted around the boy laying on the hotel bed. By now, the flatscreen was screaming the melodious tones of Stella By Starlight across the quaint hotel room.
“Fine be that way troglodyte.” Flor walked towards the TV. The volume dropped. She turned. The volume increased. She turned back to Stephen still reading his book. The TV turned itself off.
“I told you milady,” Stephen said with a chuckle. “No remote.”
“First if you call me milady again I’m going to pop a tooth out your head. Second look for that remote while I get dressed,” Flor said. Stephen looked at her muscled arm and flinty glare and for the first time since his mother introduced him to his mother’s new boyfriend’s daughter he saw Flor. They torn apart their hotel room and then searched the adjoining room where their respective parents were staying. No remote. When they returned to their room the TV was on again playing The Haunting. Flor unplugged it. They sat on their beds, thinking and eating snacks. Flor eyed the oddly smart third grader eating beef jerky with one hand and a sleeve of Pringles in the other. His haircut was horrendous but his tee read My Other Car is a Tardis. Her eyes squinted as she realized this freaky little kid was a lot bigger on the inside.
“Theories? I’m thinking another remote is interfering with our set,” Flor said, offering Stephen a Twizzler. He accepted the red licorice and wrapped it around the jerky. The lights flickered. The room was silent except for chomping.
Chewing, Stephen pondered. “I think ghosts are merely the undead living in a parallel universe and some places are shall we say thinner than others and you can peek.” He offered her a stack of chips.
“Interesting what do you base your theory on, little Mr. Spooky Spook.”
“Research naturally. You do know Cape May is well known as one of the most haunted towns in America. And call me … Spike.”
“Spike, no I didn’t. But I know this broke ass inn was once a makeshift hospital during the infamous influenza outbreak of 1918. Yeah you’re not the only one who reads.”
“That makes sense. Do you remember when we came in from the beach this afternoon and when the books fell off the table and you bumped into that lady in…”
“The old fashioned waitress costume,” Flor said, a light coming into her face. “No one else on staff was costumed!” Suddenly there was a volley of knocks on their hotel door.
“Okay already we get it. You’re haunted. You’re a haunted creepy inn. Nobody likes a show off. So Spike our parents as sick of us and it is only day one. While they are out getting their groove on let’s peek.”
Stephen aka Spike jumped off his bed and ran for the door. Flor collected her phone, a portable charger, a couple of water bottles, and her Swiss Army knife in her retro Scooby Doo backpack and followed.
“After you milady.”
Flor punched Spike’s arm and they headed down the wild patterned hallway to adventure.

Ready, Pumpkin

“Do you want a story?”
Rhynn shook her head. Pink plastic butterflies clipped to her pigtails swung.
“Do you want three stories?” Annie asked.
The pink butterflies swung vigorously.
“What do you want from, Nana, pumpkin?”
Pursing her lips, Rhynn cocked her head to one side. Anne leaned back in the glider and fished through her craft bag. She fingered past her embroidery hoop and a bundle of tightly bound sage. The pink curtained bedroom grew quiet.
“Nana, why do people stop talking when I enter a room?”
Annie pulled out a small suede pouch. “It’s the stories, pumpkin. The stories you tell.”
Tears sprang to Rhynn’s eyes. “My dreams—“
Annie shushed her granddaughter. “ Pumpkin I know. Tell me about your dreams.”
“I’m not a liar. I dream. People come to me in the night. First I was afraid. Some people had no mouth. Some people had big black eyes. Then nicer people with regular faces would come and sit with me in my room. It was, it was…” Rhynn’s voice trailed away.
“It was peaceful and you wanted to share what you saw. Share the stories these people whispered in the night. And instead of afraid you were—“
“With like family,” Rhynn answered.
Taking a breath, Annie put down her patchwork bag and jiggled the stones in her pouch. “Dreams are an in-between space like a waiting room or a doorway. Think of them as open where different things can walk in and out. Most people can feel the,” Annie scrambled for a word, true but gentle, “former people in the in-between, some can hear them, but only a very very few can see them and hear them and with training learn to talk with them.”
Rhynn tilted her head to the side. Her pink plastic butterfly barrettes bobbed as she jumped up and down on her princess bed.
Annie held up her right hand. Five gemstone floated from the pouch spiraling above Annie’s outstretched palm.
“Ready, pumpkin.”

New Sheriff in Town: the field trip

Marty scrubbed a hand over his shaved and cologne scented face. He hated Mondays and children and today’s bring Your Daughter to Work Day would be a nightmare. Why me?
Lincoln and his five little horrors walked in through LifeWell’s revolving door. Marty’s smile widen as Lincoln approached. Lincoln quirked an eyebrow and they put on their professional faces.
“Mr. Perez it is so kind of you to allow some of my Advanced Biology students to visit your facility,” Lincoln said.
“Well it’s not my company, Mr. Forest, but LifeWell is committed to the future of science,” Marty said, giving the five ten year olds a 1000 watt smile. They stared back at him blankly.
Marty launched into boilerplate speech on founder Trish Tran-Gray and meteoritic rise of LifeWell, pioneer in biologic 3-D printing of organs and tissues. Tilting his head, Marty smiled again at the mini monsters. Lulu one of his staff photographer took copious photos of them.
The group walked across the terrazzo tiles past the expensive artwork towards the gallery overlooking the kidney room.
“Questions?”
Mini monster 1: “if you can make parts of people, could you make a whole person? Are the reports of your merger with Quell Computing true?”
“Well it’s possible more than possible to create… artificial helpers, with positronic brains and enhanced skeletons. You know super smart machines to do things too dangerous for regular people,” Marty answered.
Mini monster 2: “we’ve reached the point where AI is indistinguishable from humans.”
Marty chuckled.
Mini monster 3: “excellent point Misha what makes a person a person. With living hearts and muscles and brains aren’t you making people.”
Marty’s smile slipped past his cuff links.
“Not like real people,” Marty said.
Mini monster 4: “so like slaves.”
Marty coughed. Lulu stopped taking photos. The little girls launched into an assault of questioning. Lincoln corralled his students into silence.
“So we’re done here,” Marty said wearily. He turned to lead the little gremlins to the rows of plump kidneys, livers, unbeaten hearts. There were bags of marrow and shelves of skin. LifeWell has an eye room but no one was allowed to see it.
Mini monster 5 raised a grubby hand.
“What,” Marty snapped. Lincoln paused.
“Insurance doesn’t cover gray organs. What happens to the people who need an organ donation and can’t afford it? I feel bad for those sick people. Just bad. “
Marty snorted. Lincoln’s face dropped. The group headed through the swinging doors towards the future.

Call Me, Lee

Dear Mr. Delaney,

God, I don’t know what to even call you. It’s so weird. This is like the weirdest letter I’ve ever written and like the only letter I’ve ever written. I mean who writes letters. I’m rambling. Josh says I ramble and talk super quick when I’m nervous and I guess I do the same when I write. To the point I’m your daughter, Lizette. Wow this is weird, so weird and hard.
I got kind of upset. Josh is writing for me now.
Hi this is Josh Romano.
I made Josh write hi. Josh is my best friend boyfriend but that’s a whole other thing. He held me together when I found out who you are and what happened to me. Josh wants me to start at the beginning. But I can’t. I don’t remember much from when I was little. I just remember moving, always moving. It was confusing. Mommy and I stayed in shelters, homeless shelters, abused women shelters. I’ve slept in more church rec rooms than I can count. Mommy kept me close and looked after me the best she could. She said we had to hide, to run, to stay away from the cops and from bad men. It’s all runny in my head when I try to focus on one thing.
I remember Mommy working in a gas station. While she worked, I played in the store. I like the donut aisle. I think we were living in our car back then. My dad used to stop by everyday for a super Biggie Coke, a pack of Pall Malls, and a slim Jim. He was so nice, the best really. He said he wanted to help us get on our feet but I think he wanted someone to love. We moved into his house, a little farm. We stopped running, Mommy and I. And it was like I had always been there. We became a family and I was his daughter. Mommy said I had his eyes. I put down roots.
We raised chickens. I joined 4-H and Future Farmers of America. My Appenzeller won best in show in the under 18 division. I don’t have a lot of friends but the ones I have are good. Mommy didn’t get as many headaches as before and everything was just normal I guess. Being kidnapped I mean I should have a life like a Lifetime movie. But we didn’t.
Then My dad got sick. I always thought of him as strong as an oak. You know always there protecting us. Well the cancer, the cancer was a different kind of strong.
My dad left me a file folder. I always helped him with handling the bills, managing the farm. Fat and wrapped with rubber bands, that folder sat on the top of the file cabinet for years. Delaney was written on it in his cursive. I never took much notice to it. Dad tended to never let anything go. He told me his final arrangement information was in the Delaney folder. I thought he was being morbid but after he passed I pulled off the rubber bands and uprooted my life.
There was newspaper clippings and pages printed from the internet. Pictures of my mother young and pretty, pictures of me as a baby, a toddler, in my nursery school photo day with pig tails. I saw my bedroom in your house with the princess bed, the pink gingham sheets, the stuffed animals that you kept for me. I saw my eyes in your face and I slapped that folder closed. I had just lost my dad, my mother was fallen to pieces, and now I’m the girl on the side of the carton of milk. OMFG.
Josh helped. He is — I won’t write more about myself, JR. He sat with me until I could read about the custody battle between you and her. Our disappearance and the search that followed. I couldn’t believe mommy lost custody of me because of her stability. My mommy is not unstable, not dangerous. Josh just asked me to take deep breaths.
I don’t know what to do. I need answers. I need to understand why my mother did what she did and who you are to look for your baby when everyone told you to give up hope. Twelve years gone and I’m not a child. I don’t know what I am. I need to understand. Mommy called me Lee. Dad called me LJ or Little Junior. I read you named me after your Grandma Liz who raised you. I saw a video of you on America’s Most Wanted talking about me calling me sweet baby Lizzie. I don’t know who that is. I can’t talk to my mother. Josh and I got on a Greyhound right after the funeral to find out from you.
Call me,
Lee

No One Looks At Photos Anymore

With an empty basket on her hip, Geri collected the random crap laying around the living room that should be the random crap stowed away upstairs. Yawning, Aaron stretched in his desk chair and watched his wife’s luscious ass. Geri bent lower reaching under the coffee table.
“That’s funny?”
Aaron returned to his monitor. “What, doll?”
“It’s our old digital camera. I haven’t seen it since since forever. Since Ash was a toddler.” Geri turned the metallic orange rectangle in her fingers. “No one looks at photos anymore.”
“Didn’t your friend’s goofy kid break it during a party. Whatever happened to that wackadoodle?” Aaron patted his lap. Still rotating the camera, Geri molded herself against Aaron.
“He’s at Stanford. Do you think we can get it working?”
Aaron took the camera. Geri took his Scotch. She grimaced. Laughing Aaron fished for a usb cord. “It’s probably dead. Battery corroded.”
With a few clicks, images filled the screen. A Christmas tree, piles of wrapped presents in green and gold, Ashton in footed pink pajamas leaping with joy, Aaron and Ash making snowmen, snow angels, Aston jumping in puddles, Geri and Ashton dying eggs. There were photos of Easter dinner. Next the images were blurry. A lot of of smeary images of their old dog Chippy and Barbies taken from a small child’s perspective
“Remember when she had doll babies and an imaginary friend?”
“Hell I remember when she talked to us.” Aaron chuckled softly. After a hearty swig, Geri passed the glass back to her husband.
“I remember when we knew when she was coming home at night,” Geri said. Together they watched the world through their daughter’s eyes.

‘Ello Guv’ner

It was a regular day at Cross Rivers Saving & Loans. Behind an inch of bulletproof plastic, Nicholas stood bored. Debbie was running late per usual. Under bank protocol Mr. Shen should be behind the glass as a backup bank teller but instead he was online trying to cover the spread for the San Barracus Brewsters versus the Mohnton Bulldogs. Edna was in the back of bank doing God knows what. Nicholas was bored to tears.
Tonight was pub quiz night at The Drunken Sailor, true crime edition. Tony and his crew from the Pick’n’Save were knee deep in serial killers, sick bastards. But Nicholas and his best bud Rumi had been studying heists. From the Gardiner Museum to DB Cooper, they were robber baron beasts. With their team mates they were going to win that free pizza.
Nicholas’ eyes swept the acoustic tiles, the basic vanilla walls with inoffensive corporate abstracts, the dirt brown carpet. Today would be a great day to hold up a bank, Nicholas thought.
A slender man in a high collared trench coat strode towards him. Who wears a trench coat? Nicholas thought. Then he said the full face mask, it was realistic, really realistic and with the protective face mask it was completely believable. Nicholas would have been fooled if he didn’t recognized who it was. Nicholas was face to face with Brian Reader, the Guv’ner, the leader of the Diamond Geezers who stole $20 million from a London bank. He was a legend, a criminal genius, and dead for eight years.
Gently the fake old man placed a sturdy zippered satchel on the fake granite countertop. The Guv’ner wore fine leather gloves and pointed to the cash drawer. The Guv’ner rested his hand on his hip showing the tidy gun in his waistband. Nicholas considered reaching for the alert button. The robber coughed and shook his head no politely.
Opening his cash drawer Nicholas reached for the fives and tens. Another polite cough warned. Oddly calm Nicholas removed the top drawer and accessed the hundreds. Nicholas grabbed an exploding dye pack. Faux Reader crossed his arms and chuckled. That laugh froze Nicholas’ brain. The pack slipped from his fingers. Phlatho blue splattered Nicholas’ khakis.
The robber zipped the bag full of cash closed and turned to leave. Edna opened the back of bank door. The Guv’ner tipped his fedora to me and sailed out of the door. Knowing the robber was safely outside, Nicholas hit the alarm button as he fell to floor. He covered his face writhing.
Edna stared and shouted. Mr. Shen ran from his glass walled den of iniquity. Nicholas would know Rumi’s chuckle anywhere. He bit his hands to hide his laughter.

Room D6

As she stepped out of the elevator, Jacinta heard the snickers. Brittle shards of derision shimmer down from the ceiling. She resisted the urge to pat down her edges. A trio of petite nearly identical blondes chatting in a triangle looked at her and laughed directly. Round and brown, Jacinta maneuvered around the other dancers down the narrow hallway. The once white walls were hand smudged gray and the floors tired yellow pine parquet. The Grecian columned facade on the dance studio was a grand painted face on a faded body. Jacinta thought about seeing old timey movie stars in retro tv shows and smiled to herself. Unaware she adjusted her mocha tights under her long jacket.
In her hand, a used shopping list with the ingredients for oxtail stew on one side and a date, time, and room number on the other. The scrap of paper in her abuela’s hand and her own was a talisman. It had been carried from the kitchen to her bedroom mirror to her backpack inner pocket. The words had been written across her chest with each heartbeat from the time of the call until she walked up the main staircase, A tall boy in a leotard pretended to cough the phrase “fat ass.” Another storm cloud of laughter thundered down the hall. A slender olive complexion girl turned her face to the corner. Reading down the room numbers, Jacinta looked at her note and stopped in front of a studio door.
“Yo, you looking for something?” A young dancer asked leaning in a graceful pose against the door jamb.
Her sharp eyed friend add under her breath, “The KFC is that away,.”
“Thank you but I know the way,” Jacinta said simply. She turned the knob and stepped in.

Jordy

“This is a hell of a lot harder than knit one, purl two,” Chris said. Her tongue stuck out a little while she concentrated over her needle and thread.
“Language young lady,” aunt Nancy said as she rocked in the rocking chair. “Remember you’re the silly bitch who wanted to learn this old timey crap.” Aunt Nancy took her niece’s embroidery hoop and demonstrated a French knot for the fourth time. Their heads like mirror images bent over the taut fabric.
“Did you know during World War II women ran the factories and farms and were even girl lumberjacks?” Vivi was very serious. Her mother and great aunt made affirmative noises in her general direction.
“I know it,” Lena said, half to her big sister and half to her stuffed kangaroo, John John.
Vivi ignored her and returned to her new book of useless yet inspiring facts for girls. “They were known as lumberjills,” Vivi continued.
“Everybody knows that.” Lena glared at her sister. Vivi matched her stare.
“you’re a baby. How would you know anything.” Measured, Vivi’s voice was sharp as a switch.
“V you cut that out right now. You gonna get it if you keep at your sister.” Chris put down the hoop, stitches forgotten. Every day was another battle with these two, she thought.
Lena rubbed John-John’s long velvety ears. “Jordy tells me things.”
Turning the pages angrily, Vivi returned to her big girl book. “Liar,” she hissed. “There’s no Jordy.”
“Jordy is my friend. She not yours. She’s mommy’s twin sister. She comes to me at night. Jordy got real sick and went away and Grammy Susie wouldn’t let anybody talk about Jordan. We play with my toys. She chased away the people who knocked on the upstairs windows. Jordy can be little like me or a grown up lady. But she’s always mine not yours.” With that Lena popped up, tucked John-John under her arm, and walked off. “She’s not alive but she’s not just bones, stupid.
Vivi sucked her teeth. Chris turned to her aunt. “Can you believe this….” Her voice trailed away as she looked into her aunt’s crumbled face. Covering her eyes, aunt Nancy ran to the kitchen. Chris chased her.
“During the war women spies sent coded messages in knitting patterns. Isn’t that cool?” Vivi said to the empty living room. Behind Vivi, the rocking chair began to rock gently.

A Killing

“Whatcha doing?” Tony asked
“Just killing my darlings, sweetie peach,” Mom answered.
Still typing on her keyboard, she turned and smiled over at him. Tony was used to her magic and weirdness.
“Can I have a juice box?”
“Have a glass of milk and grab me a beer.” Mom returned to the soft glow of her screen.
Tony made a couple of peanut butter sandwiches. Carefully he cut them into perfect crustless triangles, arranged the sandwiches on two plates, grabbed a six pack of beer and tiny house carton of milk. Tony juggled everything into the living room where his mom was writing her novel at the cluttered dining room table. Dinner and four beers later, Mom walked to bed with the last two beers. Stretched under the dining room table re-reading In a Glass Darkly, Tony drained his juice box and wondered if Mom would let Bill take him hunting this year.

What do you call a group of vampires? Tony thought. A pride of lions, yes. A murder of crows, bit over the top. But is there a term for groups of animals no one believes in. Aching, his taut muscles yearned to move. But he knew better. During his daytime rambling, Tony had seen the biggest concentration of hand written “Stay Away” hobo signs in the Tin Corridor, the city’s sector of old canneries and warehouses. Relentless he circled the building shells finding only sex workers and junkies. The look in his eyes kept Tony safe from trouble, the look in his eye and mare’s leg strapped to his thigh. Then Tony noticed the bar’s sign Carmella’s painted in black and blood red and smiled. Through night vision googles he watched that bar’s sign now. A Killing of Vampires that works, he thought. He watched the infrequent liquor deliveries. He watched more people go in then came out. He watched the frequent flyers and followed them home. What he saw tonight made Tony’s chest squeeze. The sunshine surprised him. Tony had sat motionless for hours, drowned in memories. Stiff, he climbed down from his perch on the fire escape and walked back to his room to plan.

Sharp and sweet, the air smelled of coming rain. Shifting his already damp balls, Tony pondered what was the old man’s problems if he should have just gone hunting with Caleb and the Chunk instead. He scratched and make a slight moan.
“If you’d rather make noise than get meat for the season you could’ve screwed off with your nimrod friends,” Grandpa Bill said.
Used to the old man’s magic and weirdness, Tony laughed out loud. “Okay Mighty Hunter, two can play this game. What’s wrong?”
Tony could smell despair and embarrassment from Grandpa Bill mingle with the smell of yet to fall raindrops.
“I have cabin fever. These Pennsylvania winters are getting too hard for my bones. My friend Paul went West and I’m going to join him in Cali.”
Tony listened to the tone in his grandfather’s voice as images of unpaid bills and foreclosure notices drizzled down his mind’s eye.
“Sounds great. Swimming pools and movie stars.” Tony could sound lighthearted too. “I could join after graduation.” Their shoulders brushed in the tiny camouflage box. The rain began to fall. The warmth of the forest ground struck by the first raindrops rose around them.
“I’m going to miss…” Tony paused as Grandpa raised his rifle at the approaching buck.

Silently, Tony followed the old man up the alley. Bill had taught him the first rule of not being seen is make sure not to be followed. He felt the eyes on his back. He knew they were closing in. He knew this was a trap. The old man was carrying a heavy sack on one shoulder. Tony let himself be led into a blind alley. Dropping his back pack at the alley entrance, Tony drew out his pistol crossbow. He leveled his weapon at what was left of his grandfather’s back. Musky rage filled Tony’s nose. Angry animals always make mistakes. He clicked the detonator without looking back. Flames and screams overwhelmed the scent of their rage. The old man dropped his grisly sack of leftovers and whirled. Tony shot the arrow. Straight through his not beating heart, the old man was pinned to the alley’s brick wall. They both howled.

At Carmilla’s a fast acting fire added to the rosy glow of the coming dawn. Raindrops smoldered on the bits of vampire left from the firebomb. Tony watched Bill until the sun’s ray turned his grandfather’s body to ash. He watched until the ashes floated away on a river of tears. Petrichor, the smell of earth after a fresh rain, brushed against Tony’s shoulders and was gone.

The Signs

There have always been signs. Ever since there have been have and have nots, beggars, derelicts, people currently without housing, those in need have communicated with others of their ilk to eat, to get help, to protect themselves. A small pile of stones hidden meant shelter. A coarse cross scratched on a doorstep meant a kindly soul. Tony learned the hobo signs from his Grandpa Bill who learned them from his own grandfather.
A drawing of a cat meant a generous woman. A smiling face meant free medical help. His mom always said her dad was three kinds of useless. But Grandpa Bill taught Tony how to hunt and read the signs in the woods. He taught his favorite grandchild how to read people and see around corners. And Tony remembered all the things Grandpa Bill taught him.
Maybe that why after Grandpa Bill fell on hard times and headed to California to get his feet under him Tony was sure he was okay even when the phone calls stopped. That the old coot was okay. Tony knew his grandfather was okay until he felt in his bones that the old man wasn’t. Without hesitation, Tony took a bus cross country. With his baby face and faux guileless charm, Tony got answers easily. He followed leads until they led to a homeless encampment among the dive bars and abandoned warehouses. The trail grew ice cold. His grandpa was missing. Al lot of grandpas were missing.
Tony didn’t bother with the police. He knew no one really bothered looking for the homeless or runaways or sex workers. Some people are just less dead than others. Instead Tony got a job at Goodwill, moved into a long term sketchy hotel, and he read the signs of the city. With time he picked out the metallic smell of fear under bridges and in supermarket Dumpsters. Finally he notice a rectangle with a dot the hobo symbol for danger written in chalk under an archway. He saw the danger code again in black permanent marker on a STOP sign. Then he saw it again and again.
On the way to work Tony saw danger code with a pair of double Vs. That night Tony dressed in his black hoodie and started to watch the encampment. Night after night Tony watched people, following the fear.
When he stumbled over his first corpse, a little old lady who used to work in nursing home, tucked partially under a park bench Tony could see how pale she was. Her neck was torn away but not nearly as bloody as the wound should be. Her small hands were unblemished and her face was peaceful as angels. Tony prayed over the little old lady. He remembered when he first came to LA this little old lady had been kind. As he walked back to his hotel he remembered her name was Ines. As he walked home Tony realized how Vs can look like fangs. Laying in bed covered in dawn Tony fingered the crucifix around his throat and planned the hunt.