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
Fiction

A Bottle of Wine

“Screw you, too!” I screamed to the slamming front door. Even knowing he wouldn’t hear me, I couldn’t help but add a resounding, “Bastard!”, punctuated by the throwing of a coaster.

It hit the wall with a dull thud, causing a picture to fall and crack sharply on the hardwood floor.

“Gahhh!” My hands clenched, nails digging painfully into the skin as I fought the urge to throw another coaster. Marco was gone. Again. Unless I wanted more of a mess to clean up, throwing another coaster wasn’t going to get me anywhere. No matter how satisfying it was in the moment. I fought my fury to bring in what was supposed to be a deep, cleansing, peaceful breath into my body. What I got was more like the snort of a raging bull. My grandmother had tried to warn me about Italians and Irish mixing in marriage. And like a good, stubborn Irish lass, I ignored her.

I had to do something with all of this pent of energy. While it might be spring in the Lower 48, here in good old Alaska, it was Slush Season. Which meant taking a walk was out. And my dearly, beloved husband had just driven off with the truck, leaving me stranded to the confines of our happy, little home. Cleaning, it was.

I started with the more recent mess. An assortment of various items now lying haphazardly about the floor. A silent testimony to the trail this latest fight had taken; TV remote, plastic cup (thankfully empty), paperback novel, coaster, and picture. Thankfully, the glass hasn’t broken and the frame was still more or less intact. I pushed the edges together and hung it back in its spot, trying hard not to look at our smiling faces. I didn’t want or need a reminder that there had been times when I wasn’t this angry at my husband or he at me.

Done, I looked about the house. It was clean. Every room had been deep cleaned within the last week and a half. Friends joked about cabin fever, spring cleaning, and my bordering obsession with becoming a clean freak. If they only knew the truth. What else was there?

Attic. We had an attic space. And since I couldn’t remember the last time I had been up there expect to shove more junk in it. I felt confident that that should last me at least the rest of the day. If I was lucky, it would take me two. With the way things had been going, I would need it. Sad thought, that.

Armed with a roll of trash bags, dust rags, medium sized plastic storage boxes, can of Pledge, phone, phone charger, and blue-tooth speaker, I made my way to the small attic storage space we had carved out of the whole attic when we first moved in. I flicked the light and the singular bulb, hanging from its cord flared to life. Marco had promised to put in a proper light fixture years ago. Just another empty promise among thousands. Irritation and anger flashed again, hot and ready.

Cleaning. I had to start cleaning.

I threw myself into the project with a vengeance that would make even the hosts of those hoarder TV shows proud. Nothing was safe. Every item and scrap was scrutinized, tossed, set aside for donation, or cleaned within an inch of its metaphorical life. Hours passed and slowly, the anger drained. But still I kept cleaning, working my way back through the layers like some archaeologist seeking long lost treasures of the past. Though thus far, most of what I found needed to go into the trash. What had possessed us to hold onto this junk anyway?

That was when I found the box. Tucked away in a large U-haul box of various relics was a medium sized cherry wood box with vaguely Celtic designs carved on the front. The last time I had seen this was right after our honeymoon. Frowning, I undid the simple faux gold snap and opened the lid. Nestled inside were four envelopes and behind those a bottle of merlot from 2009, the year of our marriage. If this was what I thought it was…

I checked the envelopes. Sure enough two were addressed to Marco and two to me. One of the ones addressed to Marco was in my handwriting. Of my two, one was from Marco and the other from his sister. This was our Make-Up Box. On the day of our first big fight we were supposed to open this box together, read the letters, and drink the bottle. I think we missed the deadline on this one.

I almost shoved the letters back in and re-latched the thing. I was almost ready to rebury it. Almost.

Instead, I picked up the letter from Marco’s sister and opened it. I wasn’t ready to read Marco’s words. Not after what he had just screamed at me before he left.

Well, if you are reading this, congratulations. You are now well and truly married.

Trust Joanna to open a letter of this nature like that. I felt myself smirk. She always did know how to talk past my strong emotions, which was why she was my best friend.

Truthfully, though, I am sorry that you are fighting so badly that you’ve had to go to this. But from a woman who has been married for a few years herself, trust me when I say, every marriage gets here at some point or other. And it’s not until you’ve hit this point that you come to realize just what your marriage is made of and if it’ll last or not. Knowing you and knowing my brother, you’ll make it and be okay. If anything, because you both are two darn stubborn to call it quits. You know you are. So just might as well admit it now and move on.

Admit it yet? Good.

Now I know my brother can be worse than a stubborn mule. I did grow up with him after all. But I also know how crazy in love with you he is. And we both know how horrible he is with words and expressing those things we call emotions. Come on. You do remember how he proposed to you, right? Right? Exactly. He loves you. He just gets so twisted up in his frustration that everything but what he needs to say comes out instead. You’ve got to remember that about him. And about you, too. Yeah. You do it, too.

So do both of you a favor. Shut up with the words. Drink the wine. Remember that you actually like each other most of the time. Trust that this too will pass. And it’ll be okay. Promises and pomegranates.

I closed the letter, letting it fall in my lap. She was right. Marco stunk when it came to dealing with emotions. He proposed in the middle of a grocery shopping trip for goodness sake. And when he was frustrated or hurt, he raged like a bull.

Not that I was any better. There had been plenty of times this last fight when we could have stopped. But I had said something, or rolled my eyes, and kept it going. I was just as guilty as he was.

Damn.

I opened his letter. Scrawled in the middle of the page with his heavy hand were two words:

I’m sorry.

I don’t know how long I sat there crying. But eventually, I heard the front door open. Marco was home.

Time to set things right. I stood up, clutching the box and its contents to my chest, and made my way out of the attic. “Marco?” I called out, voice thick and rusty.

“…Polo!” he called out in return. Was it just me, or did his voice sound thick, too? Either way, he must not have still been angry. He wouldn’t have answered that way otherwise.

Maybe Joanna had been right. Maybe we would be okay. If could both just shut up instead of insisting on winning every time. If we could just remember how much we did like the other. How much fun we normally had together. If we could just…

“I think it’s time for a bottle of wine.”

Categories
Fiction

Seductive Affair

Elizabeth Doreen Esquiren, Chair of the Great Tea Initiative, stood in front a large metal door with no handle in a nameless back alley and wondered how she ever managed to find herself here. She pressed her lips together, suppressing a sigh. Her head slightly shook from side to side, still in denial. This could not be happening. Not to her. Oh, she knew many people who had been personally affected by the coffee ban that had finally taken effect six months ago. Whole families had been ripped asunder as those with addictive tendencies had sunk to lawbreaking and worse to obtain the condemned drink. Joyce had been forced to publicly disown both her sons and daughter for being found in a similar back alley coffee den like this, drinks in hand. It was that or step down from the Board. Elizabeth had pitied her. To be forced to make such a choice. It had aged Joyce ten years in only two months.

But now was the time for sacrifice, as Elizabeth had reminded her. They had known that the battle to drive coffee out of the country would be long and arduous. The vile drink with its addictive tendencies had a firm grip on most of the nation. When the informational campaign to spread knowledge of coffee’s numerous evils had failed, they had pushed for legislation. And won. As the ruling had come down and the President had signed the ban into law on national TV, Elizabeth had known the worse was still to come. That always was the way. People entrenched in addiction, refusing to see the scientific data, of course they would try to cling to their coffee with everything they had. Many on the Board had been surprised when rumor of the coffee dens began to pop up within a week of the ban.

Elizabeth had not been surprised.

Anyone who knew their history could have predicted this coming. But unlike history, they would not falter or give in. The law would stand firm and punishment under the law would be meted out as needed until this horrid addiction was finally purged from the nation. A long road, but one that must be walked with head high and iron clad will. With determination and perseverance, they would overcome; and in time, everyone would come to their senses. Coffee would be purged once and for all, leaving it to the realm of the history books where future generations of children would read and laugh and ponder over the idiocy of this time as they sipped their various teas, secure in the fact that they would never fall victim to the bitter drink’s dark allure.

Green eyes darted back and forth along the quiet alley. She could almost taste her pulse in her throat. Police could appear at any moment. She would be arrested, just like the others inside, another common criminal. Standing before a coffee den was just as much an admission of guilt as being inside one. While she might be the Chair, the damage it could do to her reputation and her influence would be nigh irreparable.

She should go.

She should turn now and leave. She should put one foot in front of the other and walk away. She should drive home and pack. Go stay with her mother for a while. That would be best. That would be safe. That would put her above reproach when the truth came out. No one could question her then. She would have to give a speech, no doubt, like Joyce had to. That would be embarrassing. But she could afford to eat a little crow if it kept her reputation and all she had fought so hard for so long intact. While she didn’t want to think herself as the linchpin the in the success of this new law, if she fell, it was entirely possible that the whole law would unravel as well. And that could not happen.

Even as logic urged to her go, she found herself rooted to the spot unable to move. She couldn’t walk away.

Her forehead touched the cool, solid metal of the door. The chill felt good against the flush of her skin. “Why couldn’t it have been another woman, Mark? Why?” she whispered. Another woman would have been a relief compared to this. A simple affair of the flesh was much more manageable and forgivable. There were no laws against that.

So why this? Why coffee? Why the forbidden fruit? Why the risk to himself, his family, to her? She hadn’t wanted to believe it. She had tried so very hard to ignore it. But the warning signs were all there; his sudden perky awareness from complete grogginess in the mornings, the mugs he kept hidden in his sock drawer, spending inordinate amounts of time in the bathroom in the mornings, the missing money from the change jar, the way he wouldn’t kiss her goodbye, and most condemning of all was the scent. That damn rich, earthy scent that permeated the air around him and clung to his clothes worse than any mistress’ perfume could. She had denied it for so long; years in fact.

She had been blind and she knew it. He must have fallen prey when he had entered graduate school and taken that advanced history class. Everyone knew that the world of academia was filled with the worst offenders and the most vulnerable population group was the helpless students. She had known and done nothing. That was how confident she had been that her dear husband would not fall to temptation. Her mistake.

And it could cost them both.

Her mistake, her responsibility, her family, her husband. Elizabeth’s eyes fluttered closed. She could not abandon him. She would not abandon him. For better or worse, she had vowed to remain beside him no matter what. And some things were worth more and meant more than any law. Laws would come and go. The bond and vow between husband and wife endured throughout the ages for time untold and unseen.

Elizabeth squared her shoulders, raised her chin, set her lips, and knocked on the door; three quick raps followed by three slow ones.

A moment later the door swung inward, making no sound.

She stood before a narrow stairwell, leading down into a murky darkness. At its end, a pool of fuzzy yellow light spilled from underneath a second door and even from here, she could hear the mummer of voices, occasionally cut by a high laugh, and above it all, the smell that rich, intoxicating drink. There was no turning back. Elizabeth grasped the door and closed it behind her with a soft but firm click as it latched into place. Her foot descended to the first step, followed by the next, down into to the coffee den.

Elizabeth Doreen Esquiren, Chair of the Great Tea Initiative, never heard the shouts of the police as they swarmed the alley behind her.

*Winning story in Reedsy Short Story conest