Categories
Dystopia Genre Short stories

Turning Tides

“Where are you taking me?” Katora raised her hand to undo the red scarf covering her eyes.

“No, no, no.” Kai reached out to her. “Just a little bit further. You trust me?”

She laughed, notes dancing upon the air like flower petals. “Have you met you?”

“Touche. But wait…Please.” His lips brushed her ear. “I promise. This will be worth it.” He guided her down the footpath. Underfoot, hot gravel crunched in the high summer sun. Trees swayed back and forth in the gentle breeze sending dappled patches of light and shadow to dance upon their skin.

Kai grinned, giddy. At this point, he didn’t know who was more eager for the grand reveal: himself or his young wife. His hand trailed absently down her body, resting upon her stomach and the small bump just beginning to show.

“How much further?”

“A few more steps.” They rounded the last bend and came to the large pasture. A few more steps ensured the best view of his surprise. “Okay…Now.”

Katora removed the scarf and it fluttered to the ground as her eyes drank in the sight before her. “Ohhhhh. Oh, oh, ohhhhh.” Her feet carried her forward, lips parted in awe. “Oh, Kai…Horses.”

Standing before them, saddled and ready, waited two horses, sun glinting off their chestnut brown hides. One gave a soft nicker, as if in greeting to the two-foots.

Between them, their female groom bobbed her head. “G’day…And a most happy birthday.”

“They’re beautiful…They’re so beautiful. Just like I always imagined.” Katora stopped before one with a white blaze down her face. Questioning eyes sought the groom.

“Go ahead. Starlett there won’t bite. Gentle as a sparrow she is.”

“Starlett.” With both hands, Katora reached up and traced the horse’s face, running her fingers along the white marking. “You’re so beautiful.”

Hands shoved in his pockets, Kai wandered up behind her. “Ready for your first ride?”

She turned, a hand dropping towards her stomach. “But…”

“Already cleared it with Doc. Said you’d be just fine. As long as we aren’t planning on any racing or jumping or trick riding. You and Peanut will be fine.”

She looked back to the horse. “I’ve always wanted…”

Kai presented a flourishing bow. “And your wish is my command.”

“Oh, Kai!” Arms snaked about his neck. “Best gift ever.”

“Well, ya know…”

Katora playfully backhanded his shoulder.

He smiled, chest expanding at her joy. Three years together and still he could gaze upon her forever and never grow tired. As his father said six months ago at their wedding, he was one lucky bastard. “I love you, too.”

After the groom showed them how to mount and coached them through controlling their mounts, they were allowed down the horse trail to where a picnic lunch awaited. “Enjoy your time,” the groom called, “Remember, if you need anything, just give me a call on the comm. They’re in the bags.”

The journey was a leisurely one. Both of their horses set a gentle walking pace, familiar with the trail and ultimate destination. Kai doubted they’d have to do anything to ensure they got there. For the most part, it was like riding in a hover. But instead of being encased in plastics and glass, they were exposed to the elements of the beautiful day and could feel the power of another living creature beneath them.

Lunch in the glade followed with matching idealistic pleasure. “A fairy’s grove,” Katora named it.

Kai agreed. While clearly engineered by an intelligent hand, outside of the blanket and wicker picnic basket, there was not a single hint of human or technological encroachment. Within this ring of tall shady trees, they were embraced and tucked away from the world. Was there ever a time in human history when such secret places as this were the norm as opposed to the expectation?

There, they laughed and dreamed with all the abandon of all young couples. They would raise their child, travel the world, do meaningful work, and build a legacy of love and joy.

Katora was smiling at him over a cup of sparkling juice when her face fell slack with wonder. “Kai! Kai!” Her hand reached for his.

“What?” With a quick roll, he was up to his knees.

She placed his hand on her belly and pressed it against her. “Can you feel it?”

Kai closed his eyes and concentrated on that point of contact between himself and Katora. He felt the softness of her cotton shirt, the wrinkles in the fabric, the firmness of her skin just underneath, the steady rise and fall of her breath, and then…

A grin morphed the planes of his face. Kai lowered himself until his lips brushed her shirt. “Hello in there, Peanut. It’s Dad.” He glanced up and saw Katora glowing. “I want you to know, your mum and I love you. We’ll be seeing each other soon. Just rest and grow strong.” He kissed her belly.

“Peanut’s first kick.”

“Here.” Kai jumped and ran to the saddle packs. He came back a moment later with his phone, recording. “Say hi, my sweetest darling.”

Laughing, she waved. “Hi, my sweetest darling.”

Kai turned his phone towards himself. “Okay, so we are, officially, in week nineteen of forty, almost at the halfway point. And today, we mark Peanut’s first kick at…four twenty-six pm.” He settled by Katora, holding the screen to capture them both. “Watch out world, Peanut is on the way.”

“Watch out world?” She laughed.

He turned off the recording. “Well, I know me. I’m handful enough. But mix that with you, my dear,” Kai waggled a strand of grass at her, “and the world has a force to be reckoned with on the way. I think we should both count ourselves lucky if Peanut doesn’t become a hacker.”

“Like Dad?”

“Hey, now. What I do is authorized. Not my fault people forget their passwords or don’t use other more reliable methods of security…You hear that, Peanut? Don’t be technophobic. Instead, be the technology and rule the world with it.”

“Be whatever you want to be, Peanut.”

“Yeah. Mum’s right. Rule number….whatever at this point, I lost track. Listen to Mum. She’s smarter than Dad.”

As the sun began to dip, the couple began back to the main pasture. Belly and soul full and content, Kai sat back in his saddle, watching as Katora led the way a few paces in front. He smiled, enjoying the rhythmic swaying of her body atop Starlett. A perfect day, if he did say so himself. Later, he’d snuggle her close on the couch, watch a movie. And after that…he let the thought trail off. Hopefully, she wouldn’t be too tired.

He closed his eyes.

Starett let out an unearthly screaming sound, jerking Kai to attention. The horse reared up, front hooves kicking the air, her white teeth showing, and eyes rolling.

And from her back, tumbled Katora. Her arms flailed as she tried to stop her fall.

She hit the ground with a dull thud.

Kai struggled, cursing the stirrups holding him captive. Somehow, he untangled himself and ran to his wife’s side. “Katora. Katora! Answer me.” His hands hovered over her crumpled body, wanting to touch her, wanting to turn her over so he could see her face, but frightened to do so. Hadn’t he heard somewhere it was dangerous to move someone after a fall?

“Katora, please. Come on. Answer me.”

Silence was never so loud.

Kai sprang up, nearly tripping over his feet, as he rushed to the saddlebag on his horse. He threw out the contents, seeking the comm, eyes constantly darting to the far too still body of his wife. He found it.

“Someone, please. Send help. Korta’s hurt.”

*********

He sat alone in the massive waiting room. A now cold and ruined cup of coffee sat on the coffee table before him.

Kai ground the heels of his hands into his eyes. How much longer? Ever since they arrived, he had been forced into this solitary confinement, this echo chamber, alone with only his blackened thoughts.

And the silent hours. They hounded and mocked him as they crawled by. This was his fault. He should have known better. What possessed him to even dare to think something like having her ride a horse would be safe? That was his problem. He hadn’t thought. He didn’t think. He never…

“Kai Whitlock?”

Towering over him stood a female nurse in light red hospital scrubs. He hadn’t even heard her approach. The lights shone down, bringing out golden highlights in her brown hair, but the angle cast her eyes in darkness, reminiscent of twin black holes.

“Yes?” His voice cracked, rusty and broken.

“Will you come with me? The doctor has some things he needs to discuss with you.”

As if he’d tell her no.

He stood, muscles protesting, a testimony to the weary watch.

With its red block numbers, the clock on the wall declared the time, four twenty-seven am.

The soles of his shoes squeaked on the shiny, white-tiled floor. Track lights chased away the shadows, bouncing back the harsh white of floor and walls, an assault on the eyes.

They passed others, trapped in this place, staff with pale zombie-like patients or with frazzled people like himself, struggling to keep up. Kai wondered if they were holograms, programmed to give the illusion of life, for none uttered a sound.

Did they think the same of him?

Several floors up, the stark walls and bright lights gave way to darker wood tones and carpeted flooring. The lights dimmed and gentle. The urgency faded, giving way to an oasis of rest in these silent predawn hours. Was this where Katora and Peanut were? Behind which door was his wife?

They passed door after door, hall after hall.

Katora, it seemed, was not here.

Several twists and turns later, the nurse stopped.

Before him stood a heavy door, beside it a burnished gold placard. Dark letters in an almost Gothic script proclaimed, Doctor Gregory Mitchele, MD. And underneath, Director of Emergency Medicine.

She rapped on the door, each one like a gunshot, a declaration of war, before the surroundings swallowed the sound. If there was to be a war, the dying sound informed him, it was over before it ever began. “You can go in,” she nodded to the room, “Doctor is expecting you.”

He should say something, give some token, some verbal acknowledgment. But for what? Katora would know. But he was alone. If this was for good, appreciation was in order. But if the news were ill? What did one say then?

In the end, Kai settled on nodding and clearing his throat. The metal of the handle was cool, cold even, under his living flesh. He pushed and the door glided open, allowing him access to the waiting Doctor Gregory Mitchele, MD.

The room was long, divided into two halves. The closest portion hosted an L shaped couch and two overstuffed chairs huddled about a glass coffee table upon which sat a silver tray with a blue glossed ceramic carafe and two matching cups. A small bowl held a few sugar packets and stir sticks. Floor lamps stood sentry, giving off honeyed light, warm and inviting.

Bookcases lined the whole length of the room, filled with massive tomes in dark bindings with gold leafed titles. Outside of the university, Kai had never seen so many hardbound books in one place.

The second half of the room held a massive glass desk with file cabinets lining the walls to one side of the window, behind the desk, with a smart board on the opposite side. Dark green curtains covered the window, cutting off the views of the world beyond, making this space a whole universe unto itself. No clocks announced the time here.

From behind the desk, a dark-skinned face looked up. Doctor Gregory Mitchele smiled at him, though Kai noted how the edges looked wilted and frayed. “Good morning. You must be Kai. I’m Greg.” He gestured to the seats. “Please, sit. And help yourself to a cup of coffee. I’m sure you’re tired.”

“That’s one word for it.” Kai dropped into one of the chairs.

The doctor set his glass tablet, screen blank, on the table and poured himself a cup as he joined him. He offered it to Kai, who shook his head.

Doctor Mitchele took a sip, set the cup down, and leaned forward, his hands clasped loosely between his knees. “First, let me start by saying how sorry I am for the situation. I understand you’ve only been wed recently and you’re both expecting your child. Such an unfortunate tragedy.”

“How is she? How’s the baby?” Kai leaned in.

He shook his head. “Perhaps it’s best if I show you. You appear to be a man of intelligence and understanding.”

The doctor laid his hand on the tablet and the screen shimmered, now glowing with charts and vital signs. With a swipe, he transferred the data to the table top, then selected two windows, magnifying them both. Vital charts with five lines each. In one, all five lines bounced up and down with regular rhythm. The second, however, showed only four of the five making any movements at all, and those lines jumped about sporadically, without a rhythm or reason that Kai could tell.

“These are the vitals of the fetus and Katora, respectively.”

Kai felt a band of pressure around his heart ease. The vitals for Peanut were steady. Their baby was okay.

Doctor Mitchele swiped Peanut’s vitals back to the cluster, leaving Katora’s. He pulled the window, enlarging it.

Kai’s eyes bounced from the window to the doctor’s now pinched expression.

The band tightened its grip.

“Your wife sustained substantial injuries to the back of her skull. The force caused her brain to twist and turn within the skull’s cavity, resulting in massive damage all throughout the organ.” He held up his hands, one hand forming a cup over a loose fist. He moved and twisted the fist around, demonstrating.

Kai felt as if his brain sustained the injuries, for thoughts, let alone words, floated out of his grasp, balloons carried away on the wind. After several swallows, he somehow managed, “And that means?”

“Here.” He brought up another window and positioned it next to Katora’s. All five lines in the second vitals chart moved up and down in regularity, a stark contrast to Katora’s. “This is what a normal, healthy set of vitals of an expectant mother should be.”

It was the difference between the barren desert and the lush oceanside.

“I know she is badly hurt,” Kai said, feeling his way through the jumbled mess of thoughts and emotions pressing on him. “What I need to know now is what we do from here. What is her treatment? How long will it take? What are the effects on our baby and the pregnancy?”

Doctor Gregory Mitchele sighed and leaned back, folding his hands behind his head. He glanced at Kai, then slowly sat back up, swinging his body forward until his elbows rested on his knees, hunched once more. His dynamic face, the features proclaiming his humanity, smoothed out until nothing but an empty mask looked at him. “I am sorry, Mr Whitlock. But even modern medicine has its limits. There is nothing we can do further for her. The damage to her brain is simply too extensive. Even now, the only reason why her heart continues to beat at all is because of the medication first administered by the medics at the scene and the machines she’s now attached to. Once the medications have passed through her system and we disconnect the machines, she’ll pass on.”

“No. Nonononononono.” Kai shook his head, thrusting himself as far back as the chair would allow. “No. That…You’re lying. Katora’s…She’s going to be fine. She fell, but…No. You don’t…You don’t know my wife. You don’t know her.” Kai stood, a mass of restless energy with no potential of release.

The doctor watched impassively from behind his mask.

Kai turned away and ran his fingers through his hair. He wheeled back around. “And what about our baby then? Peanut? You showed me Peanut’s vitals. Those looked strong.”

“Yes. I did. And yes, her vitals are for the moment.”

“Her?” The word paused his thoughts and for a moment, the world.

The mask slipped, showing surprise. “You didn’t know?”

Kai’s lips jerked into a wry smile. “Call us old-fashioned, but we…We wanted a bit of mystery.” His body collapsed back into the chair. So he was to have a daughter then? A baby girl. Like Katora. He closed his eyes and he could see her. Their daughter wrapped in pink, eyes bright blue, and tiny hand reaching for him.

“The unfortunate truth is that while the vitals are stable, the fetus is too underdeveloped to survive outside of the womb.”

The cold bands around his heart sank to form a knot in his gut. “But what about-”

He was talking to the mask.

“Even transferring the fetus to a smart womb would be too much at this point in the pregnancy. If things were further along then, yes. We’d do it without hesitation. Would have already done it, in fact. But with where things are, it’d never survive the procedure. It’s too delicate.”

“So you’re not even going to try?”

“The chances are viability and success are less than a thousandths of a single percent. It’d be a waste of resources. We’d just as soon wake tomorrow and find all the world brimming with drinkable water again.”

Kai swallowed. And swallowed again. His hands clenched and his nostrils flared. Control was nothing more than a single, thin, and fraying thread, and panic the scissors.

“So…what does that mean then? What is done to protect my daughter and keep her safe until she is old enough for a smart womb? Can you keep Katora…?” His throat closed as his mind showed him a picture of her, nothing more than a broken and abandoned shell wrapped in a bedding of medical tubes. Kai shook his head. “She’d want that. I know she would.”

“We do nothing.”

Kai’s heart stopped. “What?”

Avoiding eye contact, Doctor Mitchele touched his tablet. “There is a matrix-”

“Matrix?”

“Yes. It helps us determine, with clear mind and sound judgment, those to whom we can direct our resources. Both Katora and the fetus-”

“No.”

Doctor Mitchele paused, frozen, like some prey animal before the predator.

“Daughter,” Kai corrected. Peanut was more than some lump of cells to be discarded. He had felt her kick only hours ago, just as alive as anyone else.

The doctor cleared his throat and pointed to the graphs. “Both, as you can clearly see, are well outside of the range of the viability. Therefore, all life-saving efforts are to be stopped.”

Kai sat there in disbelief. He could not be having this conversation right now. This had to be a nightmare. There was simply no way this could be. This was not a conversation that normal people had. How could he speak so casually about ending two lives? Wasn’t he supposed to be a doctor? Weren’t doctors supposed to save and heal people? How could the lives of Katora and his daughter be distilled down to some irrational numbers on some stupid chart?

“Mr Whitlock. Control yourself, please.”

Kai looked around, confused.

He didn’t remember standing up.

Doctor Mitchele rose. “I understand this can be distressing news.”

“Can be?” Kai laughed, the sound raw and all jagged-edges. “You do understand you are talking about murdering my wife and daughter?”

“Murder would be ending lives that were able to sustain themselves outside of medical intervention. Something both Katora and the fetus are, unfortunately, lacking at this point. And beyond that, even lacking the ability to sustain life with the assistance of medical intervention. We are merely facing the reality that in this case, we must, as they say, let nature take its course.”

“No. There must be some sort of recourse. Some appeal process.”

“Mr Whitlock, you waived the right to an appeal process when Katora was admitted to this hospital.”

“I did no such-”

“Is this your signature?” Doctor Mitchele held the tablet, with Kai’s name at the bottom of the admission documents.

His chest heaved. The world tried to tilt and his knees felt weak. “I didn’t…”

“They are part of the standard admittance package. All decisions of the hospital staff are binding and final…I am truly sorry, Mr Whitlock.” He clutched the tablet to his chest as if to protect himself from Kai’s impending loss. “Now…as a courtesy to you and to family and friends, we will hold off on disconnecting our machines from Katora for twenty-four hours. That should give you ample time to gather everyone for a Remembrance Ceremony. We also have ministers here and available once you are ready.”

Kai stumbled. His hand came down, landing on Katora’s vitals.

“Mr Whitlock?”

Under his fingers, he watched as the signs of her life bounced up and down. She was struggling to hang on. He could see it. How could they not? How could they just…toss her aside, like some broken machine?

“Mr Whitlock?”

Well, he wouldn’t cast her aside or give up.

“Mr Whitlock?”

“I’m okay. I just…It’s a lot to take in. You know?” Kai stood and straightened his shirt.

Relief passed over the doctor’s face. “I do. And again, I am sorry. I do wish I had better news. Please, believe me when I tell you, this is for the best and in both of their best interests. If we did anything else, we would only prolong and increase their suffering. And I know you do not want that.”

Kai looked away lest his eyes betray his thoughts. Katora always said he was a horrible liar. “May I…go see her now?”

“Of course. I’ll have a nurse take you.”

“Thank you.” Kai rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth to try and clear the rotten taste of those words.

A cold brush of air told him the office door opened, allowing reality and time to rush in once more. Haloed by the hall lights was another young nurse with long blond hair pulled back into a bun and soft blue eyes. She offered him a gentle smile, one that bespoke of understanding, empathy even. “Mr Whitlock?” The syllables of his name rolled off her tongue almost like a song. “If you’ll follow me?”

Kai followed.

They journeyed in silence through the halls. As they walked, Kai studied this new guide. She was a pretty thing to be sure, if not his type, but young. She didn’t look a day outside of high school. Too young even for the adult vocation testing if he were to guess. They passed another nurse and Kai saw the obvious difference he missed. While the other was dressed in medical red, this one, while she wore the same cut and fabric, was clothed in Remembrance blue.

His destination was on the ground floor, at the back of the hospital, and tucked away into a small alcove. Apparently, there was no desire to remind those that entered that not everyone left through the front doors with arms filled with flowers and balloons. Above the archway, carved words in faux stone read, “Always Remembered”. Six doors lined the short hallway, three to a side. Three of the doors were opened, darkened maws silently waiting to consume any who dared to enter them.

From one of the occupied rooms, Kai could barely make out the low murmurer of voices and crying.

From another, the light flicked off as the door opened. A janitor pushed out a cart filled with trash bags. Inside one, Kai saw bunches of fresh forget-me-nots, broken and crushed.

At the end of the hall, stood a large vase with glass blown forget-me-nots, iridescent in the strategic lighting.

The young nurse stopped at the last door on the left. She tilted her head and her eyes found his, steady and unwavering in her conviction. “I am sorry for your unexpected loss. May these last hours be a time of peace and gentle goodbyes.”

What did those words even mean?

With a scoff at her meaningless babble, Kai entered the small room where his wife and daughter waited, helpless, for others to end their existence. She looked small, so unlike herself. At first, Kai wondered if this was not some elaborate ruse. Surely, that could not be Katora in that bed.

But under the mass of wires and tubing, and the thin blue blanket, it was.

At her side, he fell to his knees. “Katora.” Her name a prayer of supplication upon his lips. He gathered her cold hand in his and kissed the smooth skin.

He had done this to her.

“Katora. Oh, baby. I’m so sorry. I’m-” His voice broke. “I’m here. Okay? I’m here. And I know you can hear me. I know you’re there and…I need you to listen very carefully to me. Okay?” His hands squeezed hers. “They think you’re not going to pull through this. But they don’t know you, and…” He swallowed. “I need you to be strong. Stronger than you’ve ever been. I know you wanted to wait, but…we’re having a daughter. And what they want to do…We can’t let that happen. So I need you to be strong and to hold on. For me. For Peanut. I need you to prove them wrong. That you don’t need this fancy medical stuff to stay here with us. And I know you can do that. I love you.”

Kai felt her hand tighten.

“I’ll be right back. I promise.”

Re-tracing his steps, Kai haunted the predawn hallways, keeping alert for an enemy or the object of his search. He found both at the same time.

He wrapped his hands around the handles of a wheelchair, and a male voice asked, “Can I help you, sir?”

Kai turned, bringing the chair with him and plastering a bright smile on his face. “Nope. I’m good. Just grabbing this for my wife.”

The male nurse, one dressed in the correct red scrubs, frowned. “I don’t-”

“Thanks for offering, boss, but I’ve got this.”

“Still-” He took a step forward.

Kai veered the chair around him. “Don’t want to keep everyone waiting, am I right? You have a good day.” He gave a quick nod and headed back to Katora.

No sirens sounded. No voices shouted over the PA.

The easy part was over.

Back in the room, he paused for a moment. Doubt woke, ripping through his confidence. What if Doctor Mitchele was right, it whispered? What if the machine here was indeed the only thing keeping her alive? What if, by carrying through with this crazy, ill-conceived, half-baked notion he killed her?

But if he did nothing, she’d be dead all the same by this time tomorrow. She and their daughter.

And that he could not accept.

Kai untangled Katora from the snare of tubes and wires. They could not have her. Not today.

The vitals flat-lined on the monitor.

He scooped her up and transferred her to the wheelchair.

Kai tucked the blanket around her. “You just stay with me, love. We’ll be home free in just a few minutes.” He rested his hand on her shoulder, her skin warm and soft under the thin hospital gown.

They made it fourteen steps down the hall.

“Stop!” a voice shouted.

Kai quickened his steps.

“You will not be told again. Stop!”

He ran.

He knew an exit was close. Just up and around the last corner. If he could run just a little bit faster and stay ahead of the clomping steps behind them they could make it.

Katora depended on him.

Peanut depended on him.

There. The faintest glimmers of natural light to his right. That had to be the exit.

He almost fell, yanking the chair to a stop as they came to it. Their portal to freedom and Katora’s chance at life. Kai slammed his body against the door handle. It gave way and a rush of fresh morning air tickled his face. His hands fumbled for the frame of the chair as he stretched, trying to hold open the door and pull the wheelchair through at the same time.

So close.

The wheels caught on the threshold and the chair lurched forward.

Kai looked up.

He locked stares with the hazel eyes of the hospital security. Instead of yelling or threatening, he said with a soft voice, as one might use with a young child, “You’re killing her, Kai.”

Kai shook his head, gathering Katora into his arms. He wasn’t killing her. He was giving her and their daughter a chance at life. Which was more than anyone within those walls was going to do.

Sweet fragrance exploded around him with each step as Kai fought his way over flowering ground vines.

Katora’s back arched, contorting her body. A deep wheezing, almost a rattle, slipped over her lips.

Kai stumbled and fell to his knees.

Shadows descended upon them; a small army of security, nurses, and doctors.

He could go no further.

Kai gathered her close, trying to shield her with his body. He wouldn’t let her go. Not like this. Not now.

Not ever.

“Kai?” A hand, feather soft, brushed against his wrist.

He dared to look.

Crouched before him was the Remembrance nurse. She blinked and something unreadable flitted over her features. If he had to name it, it looked like sorrow. Her free hand came up and touched the monitoring cord draped over her neck. “May I?”

His arms tightened and his throat closed off. His eyes stung with unfamiliar heat.

He couldn’t let Katora go.

But even as his head shook, his body shifted back.

As she leaned in, he caught a whiff of her faint perfume. She smelt like a wish, like longing.

Kai held his breath as if the mere act of him bringing air in and out of his lungs would disrupt the reading. Maybe if he kept himself as still as death, then death would mistake him for her, and Katora might yet live. He yearned in that moment for someone, something, to pray and believe in. They had lost more than just drinkable water in this last generation.

Who knew eternity could last the length of a single breath?

The nurse settled her weight back on her heels. Her eyes lingered on Katora’s peaceful pale face as if she were lost within some pleasant dream. Then those eyes lifted until they met his. Her blue orbs bright mirrors for his. “She will always be remembered.”

Air raced down into his lungs, a sudden black hole pulling all light and life inside it. Then reversed just as quickly, spewing forth everything, as if speaking were the key to composing reality. “No.”

“As long as there are those who speak her name, her light will never be lost. She will always shine forth, bright and beautiful and vibrant; a guide for those left here and for those to follow. A sacrifice poured out so others might live.”

Kai knew those words; knew the Final Rite. He had heard them far too many times. He always knew one day, those words would be spoken over Katora. No one lived forever.

But here? Now? Out on the lawn of some hospital, not even a day past her twenty-second birthday and only months from being a mother?

“Our daughter?”

“Rests and knows no pain.”

Kai closed his eyes. He was so tired. So…empty.

And there was no one to blame but himself. “I’m sorry.”

The nurse’s hand touched his forearm. Now he knew what emotion it was on her face; sympathy mixed with judgment. He saw it, a shadow behind frosted glass. She knew. “We need to bring them inside now.”

Of course, they did. It wouldn’t do to have them seen, sprawled out like this. Bad for the reputation. A disruption of the order and control, exposing the twisted chaos between life and death. Tore off the mask leaving reality naked. Couldn’t have that. Especially not here.

He should protest it.

Katora would have protested it. ‘Let them see!’ she would have shouted.

But he was not her.

And he ached with emptiness.

He had nothing to give.

They came, the angels of death, vultures circling, intent on their purpose of taking his Katora from him. They’d whisk her away, leaving him with only the memories and digital imprints; hallow echoes coded in zeros and ones.

And their baby…their precious daughter.

He never even got to hold her.

As they lifted Katora from him, the sun burst forth over the high rises of the city. Its beams of light danced down and kissed her brow, a goodbye kiss for the saints.

Kai looked up to the sky.

It was going to be a beautiful day.

Categories
Dystopia Genre Short stories

Until The Last

Pain.

Pain, hot and sharp, pierced through Nadine’s ragged awareness. She gasped, forcing her breath inward and choking on the cry threatening to escape. She couldn’t yell out. Not here. Not now. That would alert them…alert him, to where she was.

She would not let that happen. Not again.

She reached out to halt her fall as her knees buckled. Rough and jagged tree bark bit into her flesh, pulling, tearing, and digging into her skin. Her teeth clamped hard on her chapped lips and she tasted blood, tangy and salty, a torment to her parched mouth.

She had been such an idiot, trusting him, believing his lies. She was a thrice-damned fool and now…

Nadine shook her head. She couldn’t let herself dwell there or finish the thought. She had to meet up with River, first and foremost. Then, she could decide what their fate would be.

From his carrier against her breast, a young toddler stirred, pulling her from the self-incriminations. There would be time later for those. Provided she survived the night.

Hoping her voice wouldn’t crack or betray her desperation, Nadine swallowed and forced a smile. “How are you holding up in there, Colby?”

Even in the darkness, the head of golden blond hair still managed to shine as he wormed and wiggled about. A small face tilted upward and his light brown eyes gazed at her. He blinked several times and opened his mouth.

Nadine’s heart skipped. If he cried now, they would be found.

But he merely yawned, rested his head against her, and closed his eyes.

A wave of relief rushed through her body, leaving her feeling weak. She braced herself against the tree trunk. The sedative she had given him before this mad flight still held him in its grip.

She forced herself on, intending to push deeper into the woods towards safety. But as soon as she put pressure on her foot, the pain flared again, bright and fresh. Nadine lifted her now bare foot. Her shoe lost somewhere among the rocks earlier. She didn’t need the light of the full moon to see the brambled stick that came up, clinging to her foot.

Lying to herself with the thought that it would be like ripping off a stubborn band-aid, Nadine yanked the offending piece of forest debris off. Pain seared the sole of her foot, a hungry fire. She set the foot down and tried to put weight on it. Again, her body protested. She felt the remaining thorns dig themselves further into the soft flesh. She’d never make it like this.

Clamping down her panic, Nadine searched for anything to ease and protect her foot. Nothing. Not even a fallen branch long enough to serve as a walking stick. She had no extra wraps and would not take clothing from Colby. The night air was bitter in this early autumn, and she’d not expose him to such conditions. She had her shirt, but nothing to cut a strip with. She’d have to use the whole thing then.

With care to not disturb Colby in his carrier, she slipped out of her thin shirt. A shiver ran down her now exposed spine as a breeze mocked her venerability.

She had to keep moving.

Nadine wrapped her injured foot as best she could. Then, in spite of the pain, she forced her body to take the weight and stepped forward.

Followed by another step.

And another.

“One step. One more step…You can do this. You have to do this,” Nadine whispered. If she told herself that enough times, maybe she could trick her body into believing it.

Time ceased to have meaning as her world narrowed down to the small patch of ground just in front of her. One painful step after the next, one lie after the next, Nadine pushed her mind and body further and further on.

One moment, it was dark. The next, man-made light flooded the area about her from behind.

She was undone.

Refusing to admit defeat, Nadine straightened her shoulders and turned around, arms encircling Colby as if they would shield and protect him from the imminent harm about to consume them.

“You know…That was a very stupid thing you just did, dear heart,” a familiar male voice said, “I mean, I knew you to be rash. But this? Come now. I was certain you’d give a better game than this. It’s pathetic, Nadine.”

“So sorry to disappoint you, love.” She spat the words out as if they were spoiled wine. “I’ll do better next time.”

Dead leaves crunched underfoot as Jacob Covington, a company man of the mega-corporation GenTech, stepped forward. A dark smile danced on his lips and sparked in his hazel eyes. “We both know there isn’t going to be a next time.”

Nadine tightened her muscles to keep from shaking. She would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her fear. Instead, she readjusted her arms around Colby.

Jacob shook his head. She knew she must look a fright, her long brown, hair tangled and wild, falling into her brown eyes. Her arms covered in scrapes, pants ripped, shirtless, and one foot crudely bound with said shirt. He tsked.

“You know, you’re lucky it’s me that’s found you first.”

She refused to respond to such an obvious lie.

“Anyone else would have just shot you.”

Which would have been a mercy, she realized. He, instead, would toy with her like a cat with a mouse.

“I don’t understand it, Nadine. Well, okay, I do. No doubt he reminds you of your own lost son, yes? A young boy in peril. A child guilty of nothing more than a simple miscoding in his DNA, now at the mercy of bloodthirsty killers…Tell me, Nadine, do I look bloodthirsty to you?” With each word, he moved closer. The shadows as if living things, wrapped themselves about his body, clinging to the darkness pulsing through his veins.

“Even Satan appears as an angel of light.” She took a step back, fighting a whimper of pain.

Jacob’s eyes darkened, displeased. “You don’t understand anything. After all this time…I’d’ve thought you’d come to your senses and would know by now the truth of the matter.”

“The truth is you’ll kill him.” She pressed Colby closer.

“He’ll die anyway, Nadine. Why not give him a good, clean, and honorable passing instead of one where he dies from
and honorable passing instead of one where he dies from thirst? What did you think you would do for him out here in this?” Jacob gestured about them. “You’d miraculously find water enough for him in this waste? Don’t you think if there was, we’d have known and used it already? Did you think you’d somehow save his life? More like prolong his death. Answer me this, what sort of sick and twisted mercy is that?”

From in his carrier, Colby shifted, protesting her embrace with a low moan.

Nadine shook her head. There was no honor or clean death awaiting Colby back in the city. There was nothing more than a poison-filled needle to be thrust into the back of his skull with no one to hold or comfort him while he screamed in pain. Then, insult to injury, his body would be tossed in the flames, lost among all the others deemed unfit, unworthy of water rations. His light would be lost to the world and in exchange, they’d put his name on a wall? As if that made up for his murder?

“Over my dead body.”

“That, my sweet love,” Jacob said, voice far too smooth, “can be arranged.”

He lunged at her.

Nadine turned to flee, cursing herself once more. How many times would she play the fool to this man? She let him keep her talking, let her body rest and grow stiff, let the enforcers tighten their net about her, making her and Colby’s chances of escape all the harder. Fool!

Her injured foot would not incline itself to bear her and little Colby’s weight under such conditions anymore.

She fell, rolling on her side and taking the impact to spare the child. White, searing pain, lanced from her shoulder up through the back of her skull. For a brief moment, all she saw was white.

As the world returned, she felt hands pulling at the carrier, intent on wrestling the babe from her.

She tried to roll to her other side, bringing her arms up, and using her fingers and nails as claws.

Awakened by the sudden jarring, a thin wail of fear rose into the air.

“Get away from him!” Nadine screamed, thrashing and writhing against her assailant.

One swift kick to her lower back was all it took.

Her body arched in pain, exposing the pack with Colby.

Before she could recover, the booted foot came down on her neck, pinning her to the ground and cutting off her air. Desperately, she tried to claw at the offending limb but found it protected by thick clothing.

The pack was lifted from her body, taking the child with it.

Jacob shifted his weight, releasing some of the force from her neck.

Nadine’s shrieks mixed with Colby’s cries, rending the night air in discordant song.

The sharp crack of a bullet ended half of the chorus.

Nadine stared as Jacob dropped Colby’s now silenced body to the ground. It fell with a sickening thud.

You,” Jacob said, pointing with the barrel of his still smoking gun at Colby, “You did that, Nadine. You forced this ending on him. This is your fault.”

“No.” The protest fell from lips that barely moved. “No.”

“He could have passed on with all the honors of Remembrance. But you had to drag him out here to die like an animal instead…Now he will never be remembered.” Jacob stepped away from her and reached into his pocket.

Nadine closed her eyes. She would die now, too. A fitting end for her failures. She didn’t deserve to live.

Instead, she heard the soft crack of a pod being opened.

She watched as Jacob drank the clean water from a water tree pod. His Adam’s apple bobbed up and down as he swallowed. He lowered the pod, saw her watching him, and then, with deliberate slowness, poured the remaining water on Colby’s body.

Jacob moved and knelt beside her. His hand reached for her.

Even as she tried not to, Nadine flinched under his gentle touch as he pushed her hair out of her face. “We could have done so many amazing and wonderful things for this ailing world together. Your fire and passion with my intelligence and strategy. We could have brought the world back to its former glory and filled all the dry basins with water enough for everyone…But you had to go and be selfish. You had to betray me.” He stood and wiped his hand on his pants. “Now you’ll pay the price.”

“Just kill me,” Nadine said, refusing to look at him.

“No.”

Unbidden, her eyes turned towards him. What game was he playing at now?

“That would be far too merciful. You’ll get the experience of dehydrating to death. Just as that child would have suffered if you’d gotten your way. And to make sure of it…” He pulled out his gun and shot her in the lower leg, near her knee.

Nadine screamed in pain and clutched the wound. Her eyes closed as defeat consumed her.

“I found her, boys. Her and the candidate,” Jacob spoke through his intercom, “They’re both dead. Let’s pack it up and go home. Nothing left out here.”

“Copy and acknowledged,” an unknown male voice answered him.

Jacob sighed, followed shortly thereafter by the sound of him walking away.

Nadine remained where she was, resigning herself to death. Her neck craned to see the carrier. She should…She should try to go to him. But as she thought it, she knew she couldn’t. Her body refused to move any more. Which was, perhaps, just as well. She didn’t think she could bear to look upon the fruits of her failure; another dead child. “I’m sorry, Colby,” she whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

The night passed slowly, seconds merging into minutes, and minutes blurring into hours. Through it all, Nadine drifted in and out of awareness. Here in the woods would be a good place to die. Here, she and poor Colby would return to the earth from which they were formed, as had all their ancestors before them. This was a clean death.

“Nadine!” a panicked male voice cut through the darkness. River. That was River calling her name. “Sweet Jesus, Nadine.” Hands, rough and calloused, grabbed at her shoulders and sought a pulse at her neck.

Slowly, she forced her eyes open and squinted against the dawning light.

“Oh, thank God, you’re alive.” Relief flooded her old friend’s face. “Here.” He thrust a dented canteen near as he gently lifted her up, easing sweet water on her lips and into her mouth. “I’ve been so worried about you. When you didn’t make it to the grove…I’ve been searching all night.”

She wanted to push him away, wanted to refuse the water. What had she done to deserve it? But instinct took over and she swallowed, greedy for the life-giving liquid. The water woke her further, bringing waves of fresh pain to her wounds. Her groan turned into a whimper.

“Nadine, what happened? Where’s Colby?”

Her eyes closed again as grief washed over her. Her head began to shake as she pointed in the direction of his body. She couldn’t say it. Saying it would make it real. So instead she said, “Jacob found us.”

She waited for the tirade and the recriminations to come. River had protested her getting close to Jacob from the beginning. He had seen clearly what she had blinded herself to. If only she had listened to him.

When nothing came, she dared a glance. Instead of anger, she found only pain and sorrow in River’s blue eyes. “I am so sorry, Nadine. So sorry.”

Tears flowed. But who she cried for, Colby, Jacob, or herself, she could not begin to say.

River wisely said nothing, letting her cry for a few moments, rubbing his hand up and down her back. Then, he gently said, “We have to go. It’s not safe here.”

Nadine drew in several shuddered breaths, forcing her tears down. River was right. She had to live and push forward. It was high past time she started listening to his sage counsel. Never again would she disregard his words.

With outstretched hands, he helped her to steady herself and to stand. “We can’t leave him,” she said as he went to wrap his arms around her waist to offer her support. “Jacob said he’d be forgotten.”

River shook his head. “No. That won’t happen, Nadine. Not as long as we have a beating heart to remember him by.” He left her side and picked up the carrier, strapping it to his body.

A small hand slipped out, fingers curled in an empty grasp.

“Riv-“

“No, Nadine. You don’t want to remember him like this. Trust me.”

Tears stung her eyes, but she brushed them aside. Someway, somehow, Jacob would pay for this. He would own to what he did here today and the life he chose to end. Never again would she allow another child to be lost in such a fashion.

She would not lay down and die. Not when there were more children like Colby. They needed someone like her. And with God as her witness, one way or another, somehow, she’d find a way to save them all.

Categories
Fantasy Short stories

Choices

The light changed, granting its permission to cross the busy downtown intersection, as I hurried back to work after lunch. My phone dinged as a text arrived. Without thinking, I started across the street, looking down to check.

I never saw the car coming.

The impact registered as my body flew through the air. I was distantly aware of pain, and the odd thought, Hope the screen doesn’t crack. Then world went black.

It came back slow and blurry, like swimming up from the bottom of a pool. Instead of a hospital or an ambulance, I seemed to be standing in what looked like college dorm room. Which made no sense at all.

“Welcome back to the moment of your death!” a male voice announced cheerfully behind me.

“What?” Twisting around, my eyes scanned for the speaker. Did he say death? “No. I’m not dead.”

Spread out on the bed, ankles crossed and arms folded behind his head, was the source of the voice. “Fraid so, sweetie. You, my dear, are well and truly and completely deaded. Wouldn’t be having this conversation otherwise. Trust me.”  He was a young man, late 20s maybe, with a mop of dark brown hair, and grinning like the Cheshire cat with eyes an impossible shade of blue. A nagging sense of recognition tickled in the back of my mind.

“Do I kn-?” The question died as I suddenly recognized the bed. That was my bed. My gaze shifted back to the room, taking in every familiar and long-forgotten detail, the posters, the teddy bear, the horrid drapes. It had to be drugs. There was no way I could be standing in my dorm from twelve years ago.

“Yes, yes, yes,” he said, sitting up and swinging his legs over the side in one smooth motion. “Your eyes do not deceive you. No, you’re not on drugs. This is indeed your dorm room. The date is March 16. Time to pick your classes.” He gestured like some old carnival sideshow host towards my computer.

“Uhn-uhhh.” My head shook “No. No way. Not possible.”

He titled his head to one side and grinned. “Are you sure of that, sweetie? Absolutely positively?”

“Yes,” I bobbed my head. “This isn’t real.”

He rested his elbows on his knees and cupped his chin on laced fingers. “Tell me then. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Walking across 5th.”

“Mmm-hmmm.” He nodded.

“Gwen texted me.”

“Yes.”

“And-” I swallowed back the rising fear, unwilling to say. If I didn’t say it, it wouldn’t be real. It couldn’t be real.

“And you were hit by a car. A blue Ford Expedition to be exact. Going fifty-seven miles per hour to make the yellow light. The driver, ironically enough, checking his cell phone, too. Text from the girlfriend. You know how it goes. Now tell me,” he leaned forward, eyes almost twinkling with delight, “who survives being hit by a blue Ford Expedition going fifty-seven miles per hour?” He raised one hand in an almost agonizing slowness and made a zero shape. “Catch my drift, sweetie?”

“My name is Amy.”

He grinned. “Yeah. Sure. Whatever, sweetie.”

I glowered at him. “And you are?” Time to focus on what made sense. A strange man daring to address me by pet names I could understand and deal with. Claims about my apparent death and somehow traveling back in time, not so much. It didn’t matter how real this felt. I was not going to resign myself to the crazy. My thumbnail dug into my index finger, the pain crisp.

“Call me Aeron.”

“Look…Aeron, I don’t know who in the hell you think you are-” I pointed at him with my last three fingers, still keeping the pressure between nail and flesh. The pain kept me focused. The pain was real.

“Don’t you?”

Something in his tone insisted on a pause. Swallowing, I took a half step back. Somewhere, somehow, our paths had crossed. There was something about his face, his blue eyes and their intensity. I had seen those eyes before. “Have we met?”

He shrugged, rolling like a stretching cat. “In passing a few times. Now I don’t mean to rush you or anything, but you have a choice to make. And I have another date in about oh,” he checked his empty wrist as if wearing a watch, “twenty minutes, give or take. The guy who ran you over? Yeah, his right temple and the steering wheel had quite the meeting. Normally they don’t book two from the same event so close like this. But, ya know, scheduling conflicts and all. So, chop, chop,” he clapped his hands, “choices, choices.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your class schedule for next quarter. The classes you chose to take on this fateful day, specifically World Lit with Dr. Gubber. Who has a name like Gubber, anyhow? Poor fellow.” Aeron shook his head, then waved his hand dismissively. “Anywho, by picking to be part of that class on this day, you set your rendezvous with the blue Ford Expedition which killed you. Talk about DOA.”

No. No. No. My head shook; sharp tight bursts. I could not be dead. There wouldn’t be any pain. No standing, talking, or thinking. Dead was the end; nothingness. He was wrong. “I am not dead!”

“Well, how else do you explain being in your dorm room?”

Regarding the space, I finally threw up my hands. “Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.”

“Already told you. No drugs.”

“And you’re so believable.”

“Is this the face of someone who would lie to you, sweetie?”

“Call me that one more time and-“

“Hey,” Aeron tilted further forward, all mirth gone, “I get it. This is a little hard-“

“A little hard?”

His lips pressed into a thin line. “It’s not easy accepting death. Let alone your own. But you’re dead, sweetie. Deal with it.”

I shook my head.

“You know.”

My head kept shaking, refusing to accept his words.

Aeron sighed and leaned back. “Amy.” His tone reminded me of my father when he tried to coax me down the big slide at the fair as a child. “No one survives a collision like that. I’m sorry. Really. But you died. Now you have a chance for something else. So let’s stop with the whole head in the sand thing, and work with what is, instead of what you wish, shall we?”

“I’m not dead.” My words sounded soft, distant even to me. “Mark. We’re going to Chante tonight.”

He shook his head. “Not anymore.”

Fear slipped over my whole body, heavy like a cold, soaked wetsuit. There had to be a way out of this. This couldn’t be the end. Not now. Not for me. Not here.I licked my lips and glanced at Aeron. “You said something about a choice?”

“Yes.” The grin returned. “You may choose to keep things as they stand now. You take World Lit with the amazing Dr. Gubber and your death will remain as is. Or, you take advantage of this time-limited offer to change the choice and change your future.”

My heart rose a little higher. Options were doable, workable. “What would happen then?”

“You wouldn’t have to deal with that end-of-the-quarter assignment comparing Scottish to English literature in the fifteenth century.”

“Or die?” Was this conversation happening? Were we accepting my death? This was not how my day was supposed to be going.

He grinned at me and winked. “You catch on fast, sweetie.”

“Amy.”

“Amy.”

Change a simple class and not die? Sounded like an excellent exchange to me. A thought stopped me. “What about everything else? My husband and kids? The job and house? My dog?”

Aeron waved his fingers apart and made a flapping sound. “Gone.”

“What would happen to them?” They couldn’t just vanish. Could they?

“Not my department. I’m just the choices guy. And not to rush, but tick tock, sweetie.” He nodded over to the computer.

Change the class, change my fate. Walking to the computer and sitting down, I kept my eyes on Aeron, who kept grinning back at me. On the screen, was my old class schedule: piano, stats, Women’s Lit, and one blank space where 12 years ago I put World Lit. The cursor flashed, awaiting the numbers that would determine my future.

Twelve years left to live if things stayed the same. With eight mostly wonderful years with Mark. Two babies, Kevin and Patty, children now. They were my world. My job gave purpose and meaning. We lived in a decent part of town. We had plenty of money for needs and wants with extra to save. It was a wonderful life. One many envied. The only apparent flaw was it ended far too soon.

No. The thought slammed into my brain. It couldn’t be over. There was still so much to do. Learning French for starters. Hiking the Pacific Coast Trail. Seeing my grandpa again. How could I be out of time? Would making a different choice buy me more time?

But what would change? What would happen to my family? Aeron had said gone. Would I be trading them for that time? A mother laid down her life for her children. Yet here I sat, contemplating trading them for my benefit. Then again, might they survive on elsewhere? Could I not still have them again?

What was it about this specific class? It wasn’t connected in any way with my crossing 5th. It was only taken because Creative Writing started at eight and I didn’t want to get up that early. Nothing more than a filler class.

Yet, Aeron insisted this class was the cause of my death. How? It made no sense. Not that any of this was making sense to begin with.

Assuming this was all truth and really happening and I could trust Aeron, couldn’t I still meet Mark and have our babies regardless of my class schedule? They might be independent of this whole debacle.

Or they might cease to be. My new life and extended time for theirs.

My head started to hurt. This was why I didn’t take philosophy. Too many unknowns. Too many what ifs.

I stared at Aeron, helpless.

“Tick tock.”

“You’re not going to help me with this?”

He shrugged. “Not my life.”

Scoffing, I looked back at the screen. No help was forthcoming from that quarter.

I didn’t want to die. At the end of the day, it came down to that. It couldn’t be my time.

To avoid death, I would gamble with the lives of my children.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “Mommy loves you.”

Even with the declaration, my fingers punched in the code for Creative Writing.

And hit enter.

Three weeks later, I sat next to a young man named Peter. Six months and a whirlwind romance later, we wed.

We wrote a book series together, which became an international sensation almost overnight. The demands for more books, the tours, the interviews, the movie contracts, the whirlwind of success kept us so busy. We knew we couldn’t bring children into the world. Not yet. Next year, we’d see about starting a family. But every year, we had one more project to do. I never noticed the passage of time.

Until almost seven years after our marriage when our plane crashed. And I died.

When my eyes opened, it was to my college dorm and a stranger named Aeron sprawled on the bed. His brilliant white grin stretched from ear to ear as he explained my options. Elusive humor colored his words, like some personal inside joke. For another chance at life, would I be willing to take a class other than Creative Writing? Would I shuffle the deck and try again?

It was never a question; of course. To pass up a chance to live beyond seven more measly years was insane. Besides, I hated getting up early. Though not dealing with writing, sociology always appealed and I chose the intro class at eight pm. Evening classes were much more my speed.

Only three years later, my best friend was getting married. Of course, Shelly wanted to go bungee jumping. I felt uneasy, and almost claimed the 24-hour flu bug . As the maid of honor, it was my duty to go. So I went. I should have listened to my gut. Because the cable snapped, and I died from blunt force trauma.

No sooner did my lifeless body begin to float down the river when my eyes blinked and beheld my dorm and Aeron. This time, it would be French instead of studying social behaviors. Spring break that same year found me touring Europe with the last stop in Ireland. A local directed me to a wonderful little pub. I was in love and ready to move until a bomb went off.

Next, my eyes saw a man all but draped over the back of my computer chair in my dorm. “I know you.”

“You do, sweetie.” His eyes danced, but his words were solemn.

“Amy.”

He nodded. “I know, sweetie.”

“What are you doing here?”

“To tell you your time has come. It is time to die.”

I remembered this. We had done this before. “No.” I took a step back. “No. Not yet.”

“There are no more choices left to play.” He sat up and spread his hands wide.

“Yes, there are.” I pointed to the open class catalog. “That thing is filled with different classes. Different choices. Different outcomes.”

He shook his head slowly. “Not for you.”

“I’ll quit school. Move back home. Move to another state. Another country. Those are different choices. I can still do those.” My feet shuffled further back.

Aeron steepled his fingers and shook his head again.

“What do you mean no?”

“Just that. No.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Everyone always says that.”

“I’ve always had a choice before.”

“They always say that, too. While it may have been true before, that’s no longer the case. You see, before this, you had time.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” I took another step back, edging my way to the door.

Aeron looked at his nonexistent watch. “It means you have about…oh, five, maybe ten minutes, give or take. No choice you make would change what will happen then.”

“So why am I back here again?”

He shrugged with his liquid grace. “Not my department.”

“You’re just the choices guy?” my lips asked, recalling something he said once before.

He smiled and tilted his head. “And occasionally the guide guy when the situation requires. Which it will here soon enough.”

“So this is it? There’s nothing else I can do? Surely there’s something. Just tell me!”

“Sweetie,” he leaned forward, “you’ve had every chance in the world. You lived to be ninety once before. You’ve had children and grandchildren. Progeny. Husbands and lovers. You’ve had good work, meaningful work, fame, and fortune. You’ve had it all. And every chance, it has never been enough for you.” He smirked, shaking his head. “You, foolish, foolish girl. Through it all, you never once thought to ask what it would cost you. Never once. You got close once, though. I’ll give you that. Right after…oh, what’s his name? Mark. Right after Mark. You almost asked then. You were this close.” He held up his fingers. “But, nope. Just ended up barreling straight through like you always do. Isn’t there supposed to be a saying about looking before you leap?”

No. No. This couldn’t be happening. It was getting harder to breath as I choked on the terrible truth. He was right. What had I done?

“Each choice, as all choices do, come at a price….Time.”

My hand touched the cool door handle. I could change this. I could fix this.

“You have no more time to barter with. You’ve used it all up. Every choice you ever made. Every decision. Every keystroke at that computer brought you one step closer to this point. To this ending.” He stood growing taller, flowing and malleable. He held out his hand. “Take my hand, sweetie.”

“No!” I spat the word at him, pushing the handle down. This would not be the end. Not for me. I raced down the hall, refusing to look behind. He could chase me all he wanted. I was not going to take his hand. Past the elevators, I rounded for the stairs.

I made it down the first flight, feet familiar with the rise and turns of the ancient steps.

“Sweetie!” Aeron’s voice echoed down the stairwell.

I needed to move faster. Hands grabbed the rails and my feet jumped. Taking four steps at once was nothing new.

My heel caught and slipped. I screamed as the world spun helter-skelter. Each step dug painfully into my body, arms and legs hopelessly tangled and unable to slow my fall. Something gave in my neck with a loud crack.

The world went dark.

And all around me the word, “Sweetie.”

Categories
Fiction

Winter’s Dragon

Some days are just plain harder than others.

I always thought I knew that. All books warn about it. Everyone and their brother and sister and obscure relatives swear by it. But nothing ever prepares you for the actual living of it. Nothing.

The weather had been turning colder and colder still over the last several weeks. Branches that had been previously adorned in fiery gowns of leaves little more than skeletal hands with bony fingers reaching out to clasp the unwary. The sky was less blue and more blue-gray, and clouds rode low in the sky, pregnant with snow. Even the air tasted different. Gone was the richness of warmth and heavy sweetness of decay. A crisp, clean bite of razor sharp icicles replaced it.

Winter had come. My first winter without you.

I had been so thorough, so complete. After you had gone, I went through everything in our home in a meticulous spring cleaning that the house had never seen and one that would have made you, finally, proud. I thought I had removed every trace of you there was. I even found that missing sock. The one we always used as proof that gremlins do exist. I guess we had been wrong about that one.

The day had been going more or less okay. I hadn’t cried once. Even when our song came on the radio while I was washing the morning dishes. That was a first. It took nearly ten months to get to that point, but I got there. Go me, right? I didn’t have work that day, but I wasn’t scared like I’ve normally been. Being alone was no longer as frightening as it once was. Don’t get me wrong, I was still uncomfortable with the thought and there was no way in hell that I was going to stay home the whole day. But I wasn’t frightened out of my mind. I hadn’t called Mom, or Stacy, or RJ for protection from the day, either.

In fact, I had a plan. And it had been such a good plan. I was going to pull out all the winter clothes and switch everything out. Then, I was going to go for an afternoon walk in the park, stop by the Coffee Hut Cafe, and finally finish reading Dante’s The Paradiso. I know you always bet that I never would finish that series. That was why I was finally finishing it. You would have loved them. I would have loved to read them to you. Plans and dreams we never got the chance to fulfill.

But the point is, I had a plan. I knew how I was going to spend the day. I was going to spend it alone, and I was going to be okay doing it. Not great. Not happy. But I was going to be okay. It was supposed to be this big win that I was going to take to Josie when we met on Friday in her little therapy office and drank peppermint tea together. I was going to be able to tell her all about how much I was really starting to heal. Today was going to be the irrefutable proof that life would continue; past you, past us. That I was going to be okay.

Then you had to go and mess it all up.

Just like you always did.

Even now, you manage to come in and mess up all my carefully laid plans. You always twist me inside out and upside down until I have no idea which way is which. Every preconceived notion that I have any amount of control becomes smashed around you. Still. Even now. Shouldn’t there be some sort of law or rule against that? That after so many months I get a pass and get my life back? You shouldn’t be able to haunt me like this. You’re not even here anymore. And somehow you still do.

Go figure.

This time you intruded in such a familiar way. I found my favorite green winter jacket. You know the one. I decided that today, with my almost perfect plan, was a perfect day to wear that coat. So I slipped it on and immediately I felt myself smile. I had another win for Josie. She has this crazy idea of me tracking my smiles throughout the week. Says it would be good to bring “self-awareness” to the things that still manage to make me happy, and to remind me that I can still smile, even without you. Considering that I have only tracked about eleven smiles in the last two and a half weeks, maybe her idea isn’t as crazy as it sounds. Either way, I had another win for her. Boy, was she going to be proud of my progress this week.

That was when I slipped my hands in the jacket pockets.

I swear, I wasn’t trying to ruin my day or start anything.

Actually, I was checking myself out in the hallway mirror. Don’t tell anyone. But there I was, getting all set to admire how the jacket still fit, brought out the color of my eyes, and managed to make me feel like a fashion model about ready to take on the catwalk. And that’s when I felt it brush the skin of my left hand. Against the back of my knuckle I felt the gentle press of small rounded hard bumps. What the freak?

My hand closed around the tiny object, pulled it out, and could only stare.

Sitting in the palm of my hand were two, tiny, entwined, pewter dragons; one with wings partly unfurled as if about to take flight. Their eyes sparkled in the late morning light; one blue, the other green. Your eyes. My eyes. Our eyes. These were the dragons I had admired at the fair but had passed on because, well, cost. They were expensive just in a normal store. Put them at a fair and the price went to beyond ridiculous. As much as I liked it, I enjoyed being able to eat more.

And you had gone and gotten it for me anyway.

That was just like you. You always paid attention to the things I admired. Then you would go back, buy them, then hide them for me to find later. Just like this.

But if that wasn’t enough, my right hand touched the folded edge of paper. I didn’t want to read it. I didn’t want to read the words in your handwriting. I had been so careful to remove you from this house. Not because I didn’t love you. I did. I still do. I just also know that it was the only way to keep me from going insane. Finding yet another reminder of you here, like this, on a day that was supposed to be okay; it just wasn’t fair.

Helpless, I pulled out the paper and unfolded the note. It took a few minutes before I could read the scrawled handwriting through the blur of tears filling my eyes. It was always hard enough to read your writing normally. Tears made it near impossible.

Reach for the blue, blue skies
Soar high, soar far, soar free
Conquer and claim all you survey
While reaching
For the blue, blue, skies

How? How could I fly when you were gone? You were my wings.

The floor met my knees with a solid thunk. Some part of my brain registered that surely that must have hurt. But in the midst of the breaking off of yet another piece of my soul, physical pain was just plain inconsequential. I clutched that small figurine to my chest, pressing it firmly against my skin as if trying to absorb it through my skin into my body. Who knows. Maybe I was.

I knelt there, weeping, lost, and broken as the sun was chased by the dark shadows of night across the floor.

Today was supposed to be an okay day.

But I remembered then just how much I still miss you.

* Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest
Categories
Fiction

Gods May Die

My human came home today.

He had been gone for so long. He left me at his parent’s den and told me to wait for him. He told me to watch over them and keep them safe. I did what he asked, faithful in my charge, waiting for the day when he would come back to me.

I knew he had returned even before I could see the car that brought him. Under the scent of the oil, gas, metal, and dirt was a familiar scent that I had not smelled in many seasons; my human. I raced to and fro, between the door and window, unable to keep still. My tail whacked the floor in staccato bursts.

It had been so long.

I was at the window when the car pulled into the driveway. I joyously barked. I raced to the door, pawed it, barked, then sped back to the window to bark again. My human. My human was here. He was so close. How much longer did I have to wait until I was reunited with him? How soon until the door opened? My human needed me. I could sense it.

My human’s mother left the car and headed towards the door. I beat her there, tail thumping as if it could hurry her pace by its rhythm. I had to see my human.

“Grab Ben’s bag for him! And be ready, Ben! I can hear her already,” she called.

I couldn’t stop barking. I knew I should have waited patiently, but it was impossible.

The door opened and I squeezed through as quickly as I could. Past the mother’s legs, down the hot driveway, to the open arms of my human. The joy of seeing him was so much that I didn’t mind the heat against my paws. Not even the smell of the neighbor’s cat or the markings at the mailbox could pull my attention away from him. I buried myself against the solid warmth of his body, crawling into his lap as much as I could. His hands ran up and down the length of my coat, digging through to the skin beneath. The fingertips were more calloused than I remembered and there was a new scent on him that I did not recognize. But all those details faded against the sheer delight of my human and his touch.

“Easy, easy, girl! Yes. I’m home. I’m home.” Hands came up to either side of my face, pushing me away from him.

I took a few steps back. We were able to make eye contact.

He smiled.

I lunged in with a kiss.

“Ahck! Honey!”

Laughter floated around us like the birds singing. My human was home, and all was right in the world.

We stayed that night in the parent’s den. Instead of making me sleep in the garage, I was allowed to stay in the room with my human. I curled up on the floor next to his bed where his fingers could reach out and trail through my coat. I fell asleep, content.

I was awoken by a strangled, inarticulate shout. Before I could move, there was a heavy pressure and pain on my paws and tail as my human tried to stand on top of me. A yelp of pain escaped me as he stumbled over me and fell. I could hear this parents from down the hallway and light flooded the room as they entered.

“Ben?”

“What happened?” they both asked, one on top of the other.

With a low string of curses, my human rose to his feet and sat down on the edge of the bed. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he promised.

“Are you sure?” his mother asked.

“I’m sure. It was just a dream.”

“Some dream there, Son,” his father said.

My human let out a small huff of air. “Yeah. You could say that.”

Cautiously, I inched my way back to his side. His hands gripped the side of the bed so hard they looked white. I licked his knuckles in apology for tripping him.

His hand jerked away and fear rolled off him in thick waves.

I didn’t understand. Scared? My human was never scared like some silly pup. My human was strong and brave; my god.

He glanced down at me and his hand came up to my head. All was forgiven.

I licked him again and was rewarded with a smile.

My human and his parents spoke for a bit longer after that. But eventually, they left, frowning and unsatisfied. But I was here. I would protect my human just as I had protected them. For the rest of that night, I stayed awake, watching my human as he slept and keeping alert for anything that might cause him harm. Under my careful supervision, he was able to sleep peacefully until dawn.

My human took me to a new den. It was smaller than we had before. It did not even have a yard. But there was a park nearby and we went almost every day. It was good to be back with my human again.

But as the days wore on, I began to realize that things were not okay. Something was different. My human was different. He used to get up early every morning, leave, and return in the late afternoon. Now, he never left. He slept a lot and often cried out in his sleep. I began to sleep on the bed next to him. He began to drink from glass bottles. When he did go out, he returned with more. Food became scarce and I would have to eat whatever he forgot to put up or throw away.

We stopped going to the park. I would bring him my leash, drop it by his feet and butt his legs with my head. But it was like I wasn’t there. He stopped playing with me. The ball and rope were no longer fun. I shared all my toys with him in hopes that something might make him smile; even my big, meaty bone. He just stared at it and cried. I didn’t mean to make him sad.

I didn’t know what was wrong.

Then one day, my human smiled at me. “Things are going to be okay, Honey. You’ll see. I’m sorry for everything I’ve put you through. They’ll be different soon.” He pet my head and rubbed behind my ears. I believed him. He said things were going to be okay.

I leaned into his touch and nuzzled, showing I harbored no ill will towards him for his lack of care. He was not feeling well. I remembered a time after I had eaten some meat when I was a pup. I had been sick for days, neither moving or eating. Maybe my human had eaten something, too. He was better now. He opened all the windows, cleaned the den, and even gave me a bath. We went to the park, playing with the Frisbee and walking the paths. He even took me out shopping with him and let me eat ice cream. Such a good day.

That night, my human cooked steaks. We both got one and it was delicious.

He started to look sad again as the sun slipped away from the sky.

I pressed against him, trying to give him comfort. Why would the night make him sad?

Absently, he reached out and scratched my head. “You liked living at my parent’s house, didn’t you, Honey? You did good there. Real good.”

I smiled up at him. Pleased for the praise and the petting.

He smiled at me, a small smile. “You’ll be just fine there. They won’t let anything happen to you.” He dropped to his knees and pulled me tight. It was a little hard to breathe, but it was okay. My human was hugging me like he had when he was a young pup. “I just can’t stand another night of the nightmares, Honey. I just can’t. Not after what I’ve seen…What I did. I’m so sorry, girl. I’m so, so sorry.”

I licked his face, trying to tell him he had nothing to be sorry for. It had been a good day. We were together. There was no reason to be sad.

He held me a little while longer and I let him. Even though I really just wanted to play tug. But he didn’t seem to be in the mood for play. Maybe tomorrow after he rested. He’d feel better then. Let go of me, running his fingers through my coat. He leaned in close to me and whispered, “Goodbye, girl.”

I watched as my human went to his bedroom. I heard him moving for a bit, then silence. It had been a long day and I was comfortable where I was, so I allowed myself to go to sleep, content knowing my human was safe and that we would play again tomorrow.

I don’t know what woke me up. It was still dark, the darkest part of the night. No one was at the door. No cats were prowling nearby. No other dogs were talking. The whole den was silent and still, waiting for morning.

Slowly, I stood up, making sure to stretch before moving. I was not as young as I once was. My nails made a soft clicking sound as I went into my human’s room.

He was on his bed, looking like he was sleeping. But something was wrong. He was too still.

I walked over and nuzzled his hand that hung by the side of the bed, as if waiting for me. It moved under my touch, but it was stiff, firm, and cool; with no more life than my rubber tug toy. There was the smell of urine on the bed and under that, a smell I instinctively knew, deep in my brain; the sweet sour tang of death.

But how could my human be dead? He was not animal. He was human. He was my god. And gods do not die.

I felt a whimper leave my throat as I paced around the bed, nervous and unsure. Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe I was wrong. The only thing I had to go off was the occasional squirrel at the park and one cat. But they were not human. They were animal, like me.

I jumped on the bed and sniffed more. The smell did not change.

Animals died. Humans did not die.

But my human smelled of death and was still.

Had I been wrong? Did humans die like animals? I did not know.

I laid down beside him, resting my head on his cold and still chest. I would wait. The sun would rise soon and answers would come then. Until then, I would stay here, beside my human, and I would guard his rest.

* Winning story for Reedsy Short Story contest