Buried deep under well-loved green hardback swirled in serifs of gold leaf still bright Neither dead nor forgotten not lost but waiting to take root first a primal crack a tenacious root pale and hungry but willing to split rock finds its purchase then the unfurling tremulous trembling green spearheading through sun-warmed earth there is green just beneath the surface
before the crack of the majestic oak limb before grief and mourning becomes grass and morning before the lush scent of roses wild with thorns after a rain before any ivy-encrusted stone walls gardens and secret keys before the shovel caresses the sun-warmed dirt before the first steps and transformations before the blooming of the first line on the first dog-eared page there is a seed
The first thing Dr. Esau Rankin, head of sleep psychology, Nash University, noticed about his trip from the airport to the laboratory was how beautiful it was. Structural agave and barrel cacti jutted wild angles from the flat desert scape. Dr. Rankin wished he could take some video for Lily. His youngest had started collecting succulents during the Pandemic and she would have been delighted at the strange twisted shapes bright against the blue sky. He looked over at Lt. Threadneedle who drove him to the secret government laboratory. The quiet Lieutenant, who stared straight ahead and blinked abnormally slowly, had confiscated his phone and laptop. The second thing Dr. Rankin noticed was how long the trip was. Dr. Rankin awoke when the car stopped. The young officer was staring at him. The doctor stared back with interest, noting the soldier’s blank expression, blood tinged schlera, and repressed rate of respiration. Rap, rap, rap. Dr. Rankin jumped. “Dr. Rankin, I’m Dr. Greta Sutcliffe and this is Dr. Charles Rich and Major Mercedes Johnson, come this.” They walked into the nondescript low slung building and through nondescript hallways. Dr. Sutcliffe made bright generic small talk about the weather. Dr. Rankin concentrated on the trio’s robotic pace. He rubbed his chin. The four settled in a sunny conference room with the usual coffee and danish. “I have followed your work closely and admire your investigative skill. Your study tracking fatal familial insomnia in communities in Papua New Guinea was fascinating, absolutely fascinating,” Dr. Sutcliffe said. Dr. Rankin tented his fingers. “Dr. Sutcliffe, let’s cut to the proverbial chase. The U.S. Army contacted my department requesting my presence in terms so vague they were scintillating. Now I am in somewhere unknown in the Four Corners region of the South West and everyone I have met is exhibiting symptoms or one or more sleep disorders. What’s going on? Why am I here?” “Have you heard of Operation Orange Soda?” Dr. Rich said. “You mean that creepy pasta nonsense a few years ago about a mysterious impossible sleep study in Russia where prisoners were kept away for 30 days.” Rankin started laughing. “Poppycock. Don’t tell me I’m here fora bedtime story.” “No, Dr. Rankin, no bedtime stories here. The viral stories were released by the CIA as a cover for future deniability. The U.S. government and research labs have been conducting sleepless sleep studies for decades. Mostly failures—“ Dr. Sutcliffe said. “All failures, Greta. All failures.” Dr. Rich began crying. Sutcliffe looked away focusing on the painted desert outside the conference room window. Major Johnson patted Rich’s shoulder. “One study here at Area 33 in 2017 involved inmates from the Arable Women’s Correctional Institution. With a course of stimulant infusions, the fifteen test subjects were monitored to stay awake for 20 days straight. There were … difficulties.” Dr. Sutcliffe began to giggle and then coughed to quiet herself. Suddenly exhausted, Rankin leaned back in his chair. “How many died?” “14” Johnson said. Rankin jumped to his feet. “Why did you let this go on! The risk of sudden heart attack alone triples after five days of sleeplessness.” “They didn’t die from natural causes, Dr. Rankin. 96 hours in the test subjects became irrational and animated. On the fifth night they were listless but healthy. On the sixth, 14 subjects flatlined simultaneously. The last test subject is healthy.” Dr. Sutcliffe said. Her voice trembled. Rankin slowly sat back down. “Is?” “Yes, is. You asked, ‘What happened?’ The experiment continues. We cannot stop it. Test Subject 15 has not slept since November 28, 2017. No one at this lab can sleep. You asked, ‘Why you are here?” Because despite sitting in a room alone without access to the outside world Test Subject 15 asked for you, Dr. Rankin,” Johnson said.
“I don’t think I can,” Juniper said, her voice wavering. “Well then it is a good I know you can. Now buck up, buttercup,” Rowena said. “Focus.” The witches locked fingers. The round walnut table where their hands linked trembled. Overhead the kitchen light swayed. Juniper squeezed her eyelids closed. A whiff of ozone snapped and writhed. “Breathe, honey. It’s very hard to tap into your powers when you’re passed out. Trust me, I’ve tried,” Rowena said. Beads of sweat broke out on the younger witch’s forehead. A slight humming rose and grew louder and louder. Juniper gasped. There was a crack. “Excellent and now pull,” Rowena said above the humming roar. A carmine tendril sprouted. The table floated up and shuddered. Juniper reached out and pulled hard. Majestic magenta power sprang out. The table bumped on the floor. “Did we make it?” Juniper asked. “Yes, this it the realm of the lost, the forgotten, and the inexplicable. Behold rolling hills of tape, mountains of duck sauce packets. Behold the Junk Drawer. The power of potential is tremendous. And you, you have pulled us in, hon.” Juniper sighed with relief. A pale landscape of old receipts and closed restaurant menus crunched underfoot. Shrubs of bone dry markers crowded their steps. The two witches scramble up and over slippery hills of plastic twist ties. They trudged towards the treeline of paperclips. “Now let’s hurry for that key on the endless chain of keys of indeterminate uses. The Contorters will be here soon.”
“Promise you will not laugh,” Juniper said. “Open this door. I’m freezing my tutti frutti out here,” Rowena answered. “Promise not to laugh first.” “Girl I ain’t playing. It’s cold and my feet are pinching in these new curled toed boots. I don’t know what I was thinking. They cute though.” Rowena did a little tap dance and joy sprinkled into budding crocuses in the frost tipped ground in front of Juniper’s door. Silence. Then a faint sniffle. “JuJu honey what’s wrong? I promise not to laugh.” “Promise you’ll turn into a bullfrog if you so much as giggle,” Juniper said. “I pinkie promise.” The round ornate door opened slowly on its own. Rowena stepped into her mentee’s underground lair. Carved into a gentle slope hillside, Juniper’s lair was typically pin neat. Today everything was higgledy-piggy. Framed prints askew, spider plant broken on the floor, and her Doris Day vinyls splashed across Juniper’s hi-fi. “Hell’s bells JuJu. Where are you, Honey? It looks like a herd of squirrels through a rave in here.” Rowena surveyed the disarray. An adorable tan squirrel in a bridal gown complete with lace veil and train crept out from beneath the sofa. “Scurry a group of unrelated squirrels is called a scurry. But you never have a group of unrelated squirrels since squirrels are fiercely territorial. A family of squirrels is a dray,” the flocked rodent said with Juniper’s voice. Shimmering Day Glow green, Rowena collapsed into laughter. The bushy tailed creature leapt around in an endearing circle of fury. “Went, Went. You promised!” Rowena wiped the tears from her eyes. She croaked and then snapped her fingers thrice. “Sorry but you could have warned a witch. Tell me what spell you used this time to try and please someone because you don’t think you’re enough.” “Basic glamour 3A Elphaepha,” Juniper said. “I wanted to be the cutest thing ever but not this.” Her fluffy tail twitched. Goosebumps raised up and down Rowena’s arms. She sniffed the air. “And?” “With a spritz of Love Potion No. 5 behind the ears.” The squirrel hung her head in her darling tiny claws. A heavy swirled wand appeared in the master witch’s fingers. Rowena made a figure eight with her wand. Limb by limb, Juniper transformed back into herself. The twenty-something apprentice sat in crumpled heap of a white wedding dress. Juniper bursted into tears in Rowena’s arms. “Enough of that. When is your date due to arrive?” Juniper popped up and looked at the messy room. “I really did a number of this place. He’ll be here in fifteen.” “All right, I get the room tickety-boo and make myself scarce. Tomorrow we will go over mixing earth spells with selkie enchantments, okay honey. I can tell you you are perfect the way you are but I can’t believe it for you but I will say wearing a wedding dress isn’t the best way to snag a warlock.” Juniper ran to her bedroom, ran back to give her friend a quick hug, and ran back to her bedroom to get dressed. Hand on her hip, Rowena watched her scurry away. With a decisive clap the room became cleaning itself. Rowena took off her curled toed boots and walked home barefooted remembering being young and being young and excited. Pink and scarlet, a folly of geraniums sprouted in every step.
I know you’ve missed my letters and cards. I admit I was angry. Forgive me baby. I had been so looking forward to Moonlight Boulevard. I wasn’t like those vicious critics always mocking and making nasty little jokes. I believe in your talent. I knew you would break out of the cutesy kid actor phase and catapult into game. I believe in you boo. We would be going places after your first movie role. We could finally announce our love to the world. It’s been six years of waiting. Then I saw it. I was first in line at the Coral Glen AMC theater. You kissed that girl that painted hussy. You told me I was special on your show’s ‘Gram. You told me you loved me with that sweet wink you give each week at the end of Haunted Junior High. When I received your autographed photo we both knew our love was the forever kind.
We are partners, Vaugh. We are married in eyes of God and you go and kiss that creature. You’ve stained our pure love for fame. Why baby why? I can’t tell you how I ached. I went over all the fan page texts, the magazine interviews, and the red carpet waves. How can you throw it all away? You wouldn’t. You couldn’t.
Oh Vaugh, that is when I knew it was just a test? This was your signal that it was time to come to you. I’m so glad I triangulated your bungalow’s address based on neighbor photos from TMZ and People. How sweet to use your mom’s birthday for your alarm code! I love you so much. Walking through your house making myself at home. It all felt so right. Those years of watching you helped me read all those secret messages to be just the girl you need. I’m waiting for you now.
It started with a partridge in a pear tree. Not a real breathing bird of course but a ceramic one in blue and gold. Cindy found the package on the way to work after Clare had left for school. She drove the package kelly green paper with a satin red ribbon to work and opened it on her desk. “Cute, hon, where’s did you get it?” PollyAnn the dental hygienist said leaning over Cindy’s desk. Cindy explained how she found it on her doorstep. PollyAnn gave her a weird look. Suddenly embarrassed Cindy reorganized her desk. The next morning the package arrived earlier. This time the gift was striped red and white. Cindy’s mom brought the package into Cindy’s house when she came to take Clare to school. Cindy’s heart gave a little flutter when she saw the gift on her small kitchen table. “Don’t get excited. Fat single moms don’t have secret admirers. It’s a mistake. Or maybe an advertising stunt,” Terry said. Cindy hugged her present, two wooden turtle doves salt and pepper shakers, to her chest and then stowed them in her pantry. Cindy didn’t get the third gift until the evening. Her back hurt, Clare was talking a mile a minute, and dinner was waiting to be made. On autopilot, Cindy headed for the kitchen. Clare placed the wrapped package in silver snowflake paper on the counter and started dancing in front of the sink. Cindy grabbed Clare’s tiny hands and joined in the dance. Clare and Cindy ate pancakes with lots of syrup with a trio of brass French hens. The four calling birds came on a Friday. Traffic was a nightmare. Her mom called twice. And she had to text Gary that she was running behind for the pickup. Cindy hurried to her mom’s house to retrieve Clare and then raced home to pack her daughter up for the weekend with her dad. Cindy was packing Clare’s pink My Little Pony suitcase when her ex banged on the door. “Daddy, daddy.” Arms raised Clare ran for the door. Gary was standing there with a small wrapped box, a jewelry box in gold dotted paper. “Hey princess. I found this outside for Mommy?” Gary was talking to his daughter but watching Cindy. “Secret admirer or another boyfriend?” Cindy ignored him and gave Clare a big hug, a little hug, and three kisses. Cindy avoided Gary’s eyes when she took the package but she could feel the heat of his smirk. Later that night with a generous glass of Chardonnay Cindy opened her gift. The four calling birds were a pendant on a gold chain. Cindy gasped in delight. Cindy wore the necklace to bed and dreamt of the Nutcracker. The next morning Cindy was wrestling two duffel bags of dirty laundry out the front door. She had slept poorly. Nights without Clare were always harder and last night was half forgotten nightmares. The gift was waiting for her. A larger shoebox sized box in powder blue paper with angels. Cindy loved Christmas angels. She reached and then stopped. Who knew her so well? A strange sensation sizzled up her arm. A small voice niggled deep in her mind. Listening, Cindy backed away and locked the door.
“He’s a hot dog water salesman,” Luna said in a conspiracial whisper. “Look again mariposa that’s his cover. He travels the country collecting data on nuclear secrets,” Cyrus whispered back. They stole looks at the sleeping man resting near the front. Cyrus’ young handsome face was dead serious. Luna hid her smile behind her hands. “No you’re wrong. He’s a double agent working for…” Luna’s eyes skittered around the bus’s advertising for something outrageous. “Nabisco.” Cyrus looked at his love with mock horror. Then the couple burst into laughter. The father with the toddler son in the seat ahead of them turned to glare. Two rows behind an elderly lady gave a light laugh. Cyrus worked days driving for Amazon and Luna pulled overnights stocking shelves at Walmart. Saving every penny, they pulled as many extra shifts as possible. But today, this rare day, was special. Their shifts aligned. They had a whole day and night together. First they were tempted to sleep in, cradled in the warmth of each other’s arms in a corona of pillows and sheets. Instead they were drawn to the sea. Burying a sliver of her face into her lover’s arm, Luna snorted. “I hope I don’t look too big in my swimsuit.” Cyrus rested his hand on her curved belly. He pulled her into himself. “ No worries my little dumpling I brought a Beware of Whale sign so no one—“ Luna caught Cyrus by the hair. She grabbed happy handfuls of him. They covered one another for a moment before remembering the world. The 33 bus slowed, stopped, and began again. Tomorrow Cyrus would be sticky hot carrying endless packages. Tomorrow Luna in the blue cool of the storeroom would empty boxes. Turning a gentle curve, number 33 to Sky Blue Beach picked up speed. The pair looked ahead towards their day together. “Don’t look but the older lady by the exit.” Luna whispered, “You mean the ex-drill sergeant turned rodeo clown. Yes?”
Ding. Kimmy ran from the elevator and down the hotel’s hallways. Her mind raced for answers. Just a few hours ago Kimmy and Angela eating eight dollar mini bar Twizzlers and bored af. Angela found something cool on YouTube. Subdued abstract paintings zipped past as Kimmy stumble ran to room 931. Why did I do this stupid creepy pasta Bloody Mary shit? Kimmy thought. Maybe Angela is waiting with Dad in their room. Her heart pounded as she pounded the door. “Daddy it’s me. I’m sorry you have to believe me. This isn’t like the last time. Angela and I did that elevator game. I know you said no. Dad!” The door cracked opened. “I’ve called security again,” the middle aged man said. “Daddy please I’m scared. You got to help me. I can’t find Angela. We followed the directions to enter another realm. It worked. We saw the black grey sky and the burning cross. I got video. But when we traveled back to our realm on this floor, it was just me. Alone on the elevator.” She peppered the door with knocks as she talked. Now other hotel doors cracked opened. Faces, confused or angry dotted the hallway. A pair of security officers rounded the corner. In a spurt of fear, Kimmy pushed open Room 931. Her not dad shoved her back hard. Somewhere a woman screamed. Kimmy slammed against corridor walls and slid down the wallpaper. Her phone smashed and skittered across the hall. “Mom? Is that Mom?” “Stop! Why are you doing this? we have no children.” Helping her to her feet, a guard held Kimmy’s elbow. Between the two massive uniformed men, Kimmy was frog marched towards the elevator. The elevator’s doors were closing. Between the slabs of metal, Kimmy caught a glimpse of her sister’s back. The girl wrenched free and dove through the closing doors. Kimmy was alone in the elevator car. Wildly Kimmy spun trying to make sense of it all. Pressing the nine button, Kimmy tried to call her sister but no bars. With a slight shake the machine came to life. Why did I do this stupid creepy pasta Bloody Mary shit? Kimmy thought. Maybe Angela is waiting with Dad in their room. Ding.
There has to be a word for it, Leo thought. Draped in linen damask, the sumptuous table was laden with heady red roses and platters of food. Guests, the wealthiest and most influential noble folk of Evermore, gathered round Leo’s table. Talk and laughter filled the air. Leo tried to catch the eye of Arabelle, his beloved , at the table’s opposite end. His wife was chatting with Lord Someone or Other and Leo only spied her creamy shoulder between the leaves of an overblown floral arrangement. Leo wondered if he should make a toast or chat up Lady What’s Her Face who was seated to his left. But the fine lady was shrieking giddily to the Archduchess of Whatever. Leo downed his red wine, dark and a little bitter. Leo pondered the dregs in the bottom of his crystal goblet. He remembered when he only drank his fine claret alone with his books and thoughts his only companions. His manse was his home and his cage. Long rides along the heath, collecting first editions, Leo enjoyed his life before love. But over the years his solitude weighed on his shoulders. He wanted the things, those feelings, that he had read about. Arabelle had been a gift. Leo picked out his love’s voice above the din. Leo smiled to himself. A servant refilled Leo’s glass. He drank deeply. Arabella brought warmth to his cool heart and her light made his old family mansion come alive. She was everything Leo wasn’t. Lady What’s Her Face was talking to him while deftly caressing his thigh. Leo shifted away and pretended to be interested in the guest to his right. Dropping his gruff countenance, Leo turned up his charm. The servants began to clear the table. Through the remains of a monumental asparagus salad, Leo peeped his wife still laughing, always laughing. She was the bell of the land and brought so many, many different things to his world. Of course their life together was wonderful. It was only the dessert course. The candles glowed brightly. Next would be the cheese, then cigars and ports with the gentleman, and then back with the ladies, and someone would play that damned concertina. Vanilla wafted into the dining room. Everyone applauded the massive baked Alaska. There has to be a word for it, Leo thought, this kind of happiness.