Shards of daylight slitted across the regal bedroom. Crisp white linens and crushed velvet pillows littered the bed. Blade lifted her head to scrowl at the morning. The air was fresh and smelt of brisk wind, sea foam, and weirdly a touch of fish. Blade grimaced. She had argued with her grandmother, the Dowager Queen Evander, against the trial marriage. The idea of ceremonial temporary marriage between individuals from prominent families in warring countries made senses for policiticans, but not for the warrior caste. Blade had been ready to die for Crest but never to marry to stop a war. Grandmother had had to order Blade to comply. She remembered seething the entire trip from her mountain clan home to the valley of Lanx. She remembered fighting her own BlackCoat soldiers to rend the ceremonial bridal mask. With shame she remembered crying herself to sleep in the ridiculous royal bed. In a sudden fury, Blade lashed out at one of the velvet pillows. She kicked and tossed. A flurry of goose feathers showered the once sumptuous bedding. An unexpected sound made Blade whip around in surprise. A slim feature on a blush pink brocade chaise lounge was clapping. Blade reached for her waist knife and then realized the elders had disarmed her before her trip to meet her husband. Fluidly Blade took a barehanded fighting stance. The lanky young man laying on the small sofa smiled. “Explain or die,” Blade hissed. The man chuckled. “Die it is.” “Stop your highness.” The stranger sat upright, hiding his laughing mouth. Blade leapt from the canopy bed, whipped a sharpen hairpin from her curly head, and seized the stranger by the throat. His eyes grew large with surprise and then he burst into laughter. Blade considered how difficult it was to stab someone who was laughing. She tighten her grip. “I’m Zex, I mean Crown Prince Isaax from the royal house of LeVanell, your highness,” Zex squeaked. “Welcome you to Maryna.” Blade continuing squeezing as his words seeped in. Zex pushed with all his might against the shapely warrior to no avail. “Wait are you my husband?” Blade released him. “What! you wish. You’re hideous,” Zex said coughing. “You’re bethored to my unfortunate lunkhead big brother. I’m your etiquette tutor.” Blade lunged for him and Zex skittered out of reach. She gave chase and soon they were running around the canopy bed. She made a grab for him and Zex smacked her with a gold colored bolster pillow. “Why am I in Maryna? I don’t need a damned teacher!” “Of course not, you’re the model of congeniality. You’re too genteel for the intellectuals and highborns of Lanx so the elders of your country and mine thought they would ship you out to the summer home of the royal house of Maryna to make you more coarse and savage,” Zex shouted waving his pillow in his left hand and picking up a chamberpot with the right. They were both huffing and out of breath. Blade lowered her hairpin and cocked her head to the side. Fencing, hand to hand combat, advanced poisoning, Blade had trained her entire young life in fighting and war strategy. Her realm had gotten strong invading and cherry picking the riches of its neighbors but Lanx had risen to prominence by forming powerful alliances with all of the free lands. Blade could lead a battalion like the queens before her but she needed to learn diplomacy and how to use a salad fork. Blade narrowed her eyes. “Who did you piss off to get the wonderful job of making me a lady?” Blade said and flung her hairpin to jab the Prince in the arm. Lightning fast, Zex deflected the hairpin with the chamberpot. “Pretty much everyone, Queenie.”
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?”
“Uncle Mikey, explain it to me again. Explain it to me like I was five,” Bridget said. She got up from the rocking chair and began pacing around her old bedroom. Michael scrubbed his face and sat on the pink and purple polka dotted bedspread. “Listen, honey, you made an investment in a special kind of insurance and it’s not quite working out like it should.” Bridget pounded the wall, ripping her R.E.M. poster. “You promised my settlement would be safe as houses, safe as mother’s milk. But insurance is a safe investment, right?” “Usually, but these policies are viaticals. That’s when a really really sick person, like terminal about to die sick, sells his life insurance policy for a lump sum of cash to a viatical investment company. And that brokerage firm sells that policy to an unrelated third party like you. When The sick guy dies you collect, see. That’s how it is supposed to work.” “Wait I’m making money off dead people,” Bridget said. She grabbed Amelia Renee, her beloved Cabbage Patch doll, and muffled her scream in its squishy yarn covered head. “What have I done. What did you do! Is this even legal, Uncle Mikey?” “Of course sweetheart. It’s all perfectly legit, see. These are AIDS patients and they get money to help their last days. It’s a good thing really. But it is not quite as regulated as I thought. Doctors are supposed to determine prognosis and everything.” “Where’s my money? Where’s all my money?” Bridget was squeezing Amelia Renee’s narrow neck. “Well that’s the funny thing. Not funny but okay have you heard of protease inhibitors? Me neither ! But these miracle AIDS drugs are saving lives, extending lifetimes, honey,” Michael said. He looked everywhere but at his niece. Bridget’s door opened. “The turkey’s on the table. We have to say Grace before Danny and Denny started fighting again,” Christina said. Reading the tension, she looked between her brother and her daughter. “What’s the conspiracy? Do I have to get my bat and crack heads.” Nervously Michael chuckled. “No worries here Big Sis. Everything’s copacetic.” “Yeah no worries Mom. I was just talking to Uncle Mikey about a special Christmas gift I wanted to get for a certain person. Unc always knows the best deals. He’s just promised to do right by me?” Bridget playfully tossed her dolly to her uncle. She headed towards her bedroom door. “Right, Uncle Mikey?” Michael noticed the doll’s head was almost torn off its floppy body. Arms folded and eyes steeled, Christina and Bridget both waited for his response. “Of course honey. I will do right by you.”
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.
Crack. Tiny twigs crunched under Connor’s sneakers. Miller HiLite burned in his throat. Connor’s eyes adjusted to the forest darkness. This was all Zeke’s idea. Every town has its legends. Jannertown had Bloody Mary, a witch who was hanged and burnt and buried in these woods. To hang with Zeke and his crew I had to prove I was bad ass. I had to find Bloody Mary’s grave and drive a penknife through it. It’s bullshit, but Mimi, she’s my friend who is a girl but not my girlfriend, says I’m smart and I can tough it out and show the boys I’m cool. She had held his hand on the car ride out to the woods. Janner Woods were an abstract of blacks and grays. The coolness of the penknife stung in Connor’s hand. He had a bad feeling. High school had been hard being the new kid when all the cliches have been set and everyone knew everyone. Mimi with her soft brown eyes was his first friend. Now her friends were allowing him to hang around. He marched on. Connor didn’t like this forest but he knew it. He ignored the inky shadows and forced on Mary’s grave. At least it was what the kids thought was Mary’s grave. It was simply an old bare patch of ground where a tree once stood and now nothing will grow. Out of the corners of his eyes Conor could see the shadows disjointed from their moorings. With a huff, Connor plunged the knife into the ground. The tall shadow men surrounded him in a circle of fear. “Child, it is good to have you back.” One of the shadows condensed into Lilith, the queen sire. Her dead pale form stood before Connor extending a hand. “I’m not staying. I like it in the world. I have friends. Well a friend But one friend is enough. You don’t understand. I want to stay among the living.” “No it is you who does not understand.” And that was when Connor heard the cracks, slealthy furtive cracking of twigs underfoot. Zeke and the guys were sneaking up on him. Connor could make out their heat, smell their excitement as they crept towards him. Evan broke into the clearing first dressed in a Scream hood from a costume store. Soon Zeke, Johnny, and the other John stepped out of the darkness. The high schoolers were all cloaked. Their eyes over brimmed with fear when they saw Connor’s family waiting in the clearing. Laughing, Mimi ran out into the clearing. Connor and Mimi locked eyes. It had all been what the humans called a prank. Mimi’s gentle touches were a con. Connor’s glamour fell away as she screamed. Tall and bone slender, Connor stood among his brothers and sisters. The queen sire shrieked the feeding call. Connor’s friends turned and ran. The branches shook as the family took to the air to hunt their prey.
“It’s weird, talking about this stuff to a stranger.” Frida fidgeted in the oxblood leather chair. Playing with her necklace, she looked out of the big picture window at the marshmallow world. Her eyes flickered around the warm wood interior and down at her mug of tea. “I guess I’ll start at the beginning. The first sign was my glasses. I kept losing them. I’d thought they were in my purse and they were on my bedside table or in my console. Then it got weird. They were in the fridge or beneath the dining room table, then in the mailbox. Once I found my glasses inside an unopened box of cereal.” Frida shivered at the memory. Ice crystals flashed as the wind outside the window picked up. She focused on her mug. “Next was my car keys, my wallet, my phone, nothing was where it should be. Roge said I just needed more sleep. I got more sleep. Ten hours a day, naps, sleeping pills, it was not enough. Nothing worked. “I was scared of myself. Was I doing this? How was this possible? One morning I had a thing–I’m an event planner or at least I was, my boyfriend Roger helps me out now—anyway I had this thing I could not be late. I locked all my necessaries in a box. It was empty. I lost it. I howled and my keys and wallet and everything flew at my face,” Frida said, absently rubbing the red scar by her hairline. Snow began to fall in powdery clumps as the wind churned. “My furniture, I would wake up to my furniture in different places. Just a little at first so I would stub my my toe or trip over the ottoman. It got worse and worse. I can’t sleep alone. Things move in my office out of the corner of my eye. The kitchen chairs stacked on the table while my back was turned—Am I crazy? Tell me. Margie said you could help. I’ve come all this way to your house in the middle of nowhere. Tell me, Mr. Snickers, am I crazy!” Frida leapt from the chair. The entire house vibrated plummeted by wintry gusts. “Keep your shirt on, sister. No need to tear the house down. It’s a rental. How would I know if you’re crazy? All chicks are kinda nuts,” Paul said. Leaning back in an easy chair, Paul glanced up from his phone. Paullie was in head to toe Addias including his handpainted kicks. Frida thought he looked like a jock who peaked in high school but couldn’t admit. With a smug smile, Paulie gave her a knowing look. She spun away and hugged her sides. Her mug wrenched from her fingers and flew at Paulie’s head. Deftly he caught it and set the mug down on the coffee table. “I’m no touchy feely medium. I’m a freelance witchfinder general. I find things, cursed things. You could be crazy maybe but you’re haunted most def. Some thing, some item, new to you possesses a hungry energy,” Paul said. Clutching at her necklace, Frida paced the study. “This is insane. I haven’t bought any antiques.” Paulie looked at her chest. Her mug shook on the coffee table. Paulie chuckled. “What about the ice, hot stuff?” “This, my necklace is a gift from Roger. It belonged to his grandmother. He gave it to me for my birthday.” Frida clutched at the golden oval locket with droplets of garnets. “Gird your loin, sugar hips, because your boytoy’s nana was Lady Elphaba, a 18th century witch known for bathing in the blood of virgins to regain her youth,” Paulie said holding out his phone with a photo of an old painting. Frida leaned over and saw her necklace on a maleficent beauty. With a pencil, Paulie slipped the chain off Frida’s neck. He dropped it into a bowl of potato chips. The necklace began to writhe and sizzle. When it popped into a blue flame, Paulie doused it with the cold tea. Frida sank back into her chair. Bitter smoke surrounded them. “So that it, Mr. Snickers. It’s over.” Tears threatened at the corners of her eyes. Hail battered the house’s siding. Three heavy knocks thundered at the front door. Paulie hauled her up to her toes. “The wards will hold for a while but we still need to hustle on the cleansing ritual. Something has gone to a lot of trouble to isolate you and make you think you have a poltergeist. I got a hex circle on the kitchen floor, grab the bowl, Frida baby, and call me Candy everybody does.” “