The soft click and whirling of the disk let him know it’s working. The screen flashes white then crescendos to a glaring baby blue. When did he become like this? Staring at the screen, hunched forward, hands folded in his lap. Sometimes he forgets to blink, sometimes he forgets to take the suggested breaks. Bathing in blue, he feels and thinks nothing: never aging, never growing. One day he forgets to close the curtains, and the sunshine blots out the screen. He is annoyed, and gets up to shut the curtains on the rainbow hues outside. He returns to the desk and loses himself in the ocean. He feels nothing, and does not grow.
She sat at the piano, worn and scratched with age, playing a simple tune she’d learned many years ago. It was a busy Friday night at the bar, and she would soon return to serving beer to the many rowdy men that liked to frequent, despite its isolated location in the countryside. It was the dead of winter, and the night wind howled furiously just outside the doors, daring anyone to step outside. No one asked her to play the piano, but no one told her not to either, and as she did not have a piano of her own playing while working was the only chance she had to practice. And she did so love to play the piano. Sighing contentedly as her fingers came to a stop and the last notes of the song hung in the air, she stood from the bench, the legs scrapping quietly against the wooden floor. The bar was an old barn the owner had bought and converted several years ago; the interior was gutted, a fire pit built in one corner and a bar counter in the other. A wood floor was laid out, furniture brought in, and just like that a cedar scented, hay ladened watering hole was born. She walked to the bar, smiled at the bar tender (an older, seasoned grandpa she got along with quite well), and collected a fresh round of drinks to deliver to anyone willing and able. She knew just such a crowd: the loudest, rowdiest, most populated cluster of tables in the whole room, all centered around one man. Michelson Connor, son of the Senator and local hell raiser. Dressed in a fine button down shirt and a freshly pressed pair of pants, it was his aura that left an impression. Apathy wafted off him like cologne. Everything one could imagine a young, privileged man doing, he had done with no repercussions. If there was one regular customer that brought a bad taste to her mouth, it was him.
Approaching the table with the drinks, she was welcomed with open arms and cheers. The beers quickly handed out she turned to leave, not failing to notice Michelson Connor’s hand trailing after her skirts. She felt his eyes follow her, but paid little mind. Such behavior was not uncommon coming from him; he had made several suggestions and offers to her in the past, all of which she turned quite away from. She saw the bar tender beckon, and when she walked closer he motioned to the trash basin behind the counter. They traded off who took the garbage outside to the burn pile behind the bar, and tonight it was her turn. Gathering the container, she walked through a doorway and paused by the back door to slip on her heavy winter coat. Reaching into her pockets for her gloves, she felt two strong arms wrap around her waist. Jumping in surprise, she turned to see Michelson Connor looming over her. Pushing her against the wall, he leaned in close, reeking of alcohol. He barred her way as, panicked, she tried to escape around him. His hands roamed over her body as he mumbled about marriage and leaned in to kiss her. Using her full strength, she managed to shove him away only to have him grab her roughly by the wrists. Seeming entirely sober now, he demanded her hand in marriage, promising things she had never wanted or asked for but he seemed certain she desired. Breaking free once more, she gave her final refusal in the form of a slap. Grabbing the trash bag, she hurried out the back door, hoping that would be the end of it.
Stomping through the several inches of crunchy snow already covering the ground, her coat flapped wildly in the wind, she failed to hear the door bang open behind her. She felt the stab of the knife in her back and dropped the trash bag out of shock. The feeling of the knife pulling out of her body made her shudder, as the open wound let the cold seep in and blood pour out. She stumbled forward and fell to her knees. Looking over her shoulder she saw Michelson Connor standing over her, a bloody knife clutched in his hand. She managed a cry and put one hand forward to crawl away before he fell on her, pulling her around to face him. He stabbed her several more times until, panting, he stopped. Leaning forward, he grabbed her chin and pulled her close.
“You are mine to have. Forever.”
Her choking gasps, full of blood, were his only response. Leaving her and the knife in the snow blooming with red, Michelson Connor calmly walked back into the bar and to the bathroom to wash up. By the time he returned to his table, everyone around him was far too drunk to notice the orange tinges on his shirt peeking out from under a jacket he had taken off a hook near the back door and thrown on.
Despite several search efforts, her body was not found until the Spring thaw, as the fierce snow storm from the night of the murder buried her completely. All evidence melted away along with the snow, leaving only little wild flowers sprouting around her body and the knife she was murdered with in a phenomenon no one had ever seen the likes of. While it was clear she was attacked, with no evidence and no leads her body was quietly buried and the incident quickly forgotten. Shortly after Michelson Connor moved from the small country town to a much larger city up North, and was never mentioned again in the bar he loved to frequent with the pretty woman who played the piano.
Alyssa’s purse thumped rhythmically against her side as she walked down the street, the steady beeping of car horns setting a tempo her feet couldn’t help but follow. The smell of a nearby hot dog stand hung in the cool fall air, coaxing her stomach awake. She decided a quick snack wouldn’t hurt, and let her nose guide her as drool pooled in her mouth. A man walking the opposite way brushing against her bare arm with his worn leather jacket, along with a whiff of cheap cologne. She heard bits of gravel crunch behind her and felt a sudden pressure on her rear. Turning, she saw the man’s arm stretched out, his hand firmly grasping her. Jerking away, she clutched her purse tightly and confronted the man who looked down on her bemused, his cologne wafted around her like a repugnant crowd. Receiving little response from the man after berating him with accusations, Alyssa made up her mind. Loosening her grip on the straps of her purse she lashed out, her fist connecting with the man’s greasy nose before her bag hit the ground with a thud. The man cried out and doubled over, clutching his nose as a trail of red leaking between his fingers. Huffing, she bent over to pick up her bag, brushing city grime from the bottom, and once again felt the comforting straps on her shoulder. She turned to continue on her way, the smell of boiling pork bits once again occupying her interests.
9 May, 19—
My dearest Cecilia,—
You must forgive my delay in writing to you. Since I have left our sleepy little town of Bram, I have thought of little else save the moment we can once again be together. Still, I am writing to you this day with—I scarcely know what. As you know, I was first called away from your side by work, a seemingly standard missing person case in a distant town known as Franzka. I need not remind you of how difficult work has been to come by as of late. Oh Cecilia, how I wish I had never come to here. Strange, frightful occurrences are taking place as I write to you, and I fear what it could all mean. I will tell you all I know, but you must promise to show or tell no one. Please Cecilia, my Eve, please believe what I am about to tell you, outlandish as it may seem. Know I would never lie to you, you alone who I can bare my soul to. I will start at the beginning…
I arrived by train in the late afternoon two days ago and, wanting to enjoy the warm afternoon air after being cooped up in a compartment all day (which I was lucky enough to have to myself) I decided to walk to my destination. Stretching out my legs, suitcase in hand, I set out at a leisurely pace. As I walked up and down the streets I found Franzka to be a pleasant sort of town, bigger and more developed than our Bram; I have no doubt it will one day metamorphosis into a thriving city. Before long I arrived at my destination, a boarding house in which I had secured a room. A three story cottage, it was picturesque without being overdone or flashy, with a green lawn and a freshly painted picket fence. Walking up the walkway, I rang the doorbell and was shortly greeted by an elder woman, as short and quaint as you would suspect. “Mary,” I greeted simply. “I called a few days ago and requested a room.” I left no last name when I called, and gave no last name now. The issue of a last name often causes me worry, as you well know. I am often tempted to give your last name, Cecilia, as you have given me permission to; however, I hesitate, lest people begin to suspect we are sisters. At the same time, I refuse to use the name of ‘Utterson’ ever again, as I am no longer that person. I must solve this predicament soon, as it will become a problem sooner or later. Regardless, the old woman remembered me, and admitted me straight away without incident.
The room proved to be small, but sufficient. Pale, floral wallpaper enclosed a twin bed, next to which stood a nightstand with a lamp. One rectangular window offered the afternoon sunlight, enveloping the room in a warm glow. Satisfied with my arrangements, I did my best to settle in and, checking my watch, laid down for a nap. My meeting with my summoner, the one who had offered me work, was not until late that night, and I had little else to do.
Awaking a few hours later, I decided to wash my face and do my best to reapply the little makeup I felt comfortable dabbling in. We must really go over these things again, Cecilia, as I am still lacking. I had worn a dress on the train, but opted for trousers that night. They are my preferred working attire, although, worn in the daylight around men, they can call attention to me in all the ways I dread. Leaving the boarding house a little after eleven thirty I again decided to walk, as the night was cool but pleasant. I reflected upon what I knew concerning the missing person case for which my assistance had been requested. The letter had been brief, and signed only with the name ‘Alfre’. Missing person cases are not uncommon, I have solved over a dozen in my time, and are not particularly difficult. So why had I been summoned? I, who had little credit to my name save the claim of being tutored by Harold Utterson, the great detective? I suppose, at the time, I cared little.
I was instructed to meet my potential employer at midnight at a local church. I saw its shadow as I rounded another quiet street corner, and could not help but pause in awe when I came to stand before it. As traditional a town Franzka seemed to be, I was surprised it held such an impressive building at its heart. The design was clearly gothic in nature, complex beyond what I considered humanly possible. The light of the moon, though a small sliver this time of the month, cast a florescent light over its many arches and spires, leaving most of the building in shadow. I pondered the seeming lack of gargoyles, as I thought gothic designers loved the impending atmosphere the ghastly creatures gave off. Still, I could not help but feel I was being watched by eyes hidden in shadow, from inside the church or outside the courtyard I could not tell. Shivering suddenly in the night air, I bundled up my jacket and quickly made my way inside, the heavy doors giving my determined jerk little resistance.
The inside of the church was illuminated slightly better by rose-tinted ceiling lights, and, walking forward a few steps, I found myself in the chapel. Cecilia, how I wish you could see it. Details so vast and all encompassing I felt dizzy taking it all in. The ceiling was vaulted, causing every little sound to echo. Walking up the aisle, carpeted with a deep red rug, I saw directly ahead an image of Jesus Christ in eternal suffering on the cross hanging above the altar. Above him, in all her glory, was Mother Mary in stained glass. Captured in impossible beauty, her face beyond perfection in her mercy and grace, the image appeared dull and listless in the night hours. To see the image of the Holy Mother in darkness disturbed me, and I looked away. A grand organ sat off to the right, glittering gold even in the dim lighting. I have never seen such an impressive instrument, its pipes reaching well beyond my line of sight to, I presume, the top of the highest tower the building possessed to cast its music over the whole town. Anyone not attending Sunday morning mass would surely regret it as the notes found their way to them, enveloping their soul in melancholy. I imagined the church with full congregation, organ music lofting about the heads of those bent in prayer, foretelling the morose day when God will descend from Heaven to pass judgment on all us sinners. I took a seat three rows from the altar, the worn, dark mahogany pews cushioned in red velvet matching the aisle. I did not, and still do not, understand why this person, Alfre, wanted to meet in such a place for private business. I tucked my hair behind my ear out of habit. I felt my short, dirty blonde hair run briefly through my fingers and once again determined to grow it out. A hat to cover the oddity was easy enough, but I still feel it would be more convincing if I had long hair. But, as you know, the ingrained instinct to cut it every time it grows past my ears is a difficult thing to overcome.
I heard the slow tap of a cane on hard wood echo from down a corridor. I might have suspected the owner of the sound to enter from the back of the church, but no, she entered from the side of the altar just as a pastor would. A black woman dressed in a dark suit slowly made her way to the edge of the altar and took a stance, planting her cane firmly before her as she cast her gaze onto me. She gave the impression of a weeping willow tree—tall, thin yet strong, her branches casting a sense of calm, confident shade over her surroundings. Her short salt and pepper hair and the deliberate way she moved told me she was at least in her fifties, while deep set eyes rested high on sharp cheekbones, defining her gaze as one of quiet authority, commanding respect without offense. “Hello, Miss Mary.” She greeted me with a mature, smooth voice.
“Alfre, I presume?” I greeted.
“You are correct.” She smiled. “Thank you for meeting me at such a late hour. I’m glad to see you were able to make it here without incident.”
“Of course,” I responded. “This church would be difficult to miss.”
“Indeed,” she nodded, stepping down from the altar to the main aisle. “This church is a special place.”
“You asked me here for a case?”
“Yes,” Alfre nodded past me, and suddenly another woman appeared next to me. Looking up, I was greeted with the face of a Native woman, who held out a few loose papers for me to take. Also dressed in a top and trousers, her long black hair hung down her back in a curtain. Dark, thick brows framed her eyes, deep brown like the freshly tilled, fertile earth in spring. Taking the papers, I began glancing through them as the woman moved to sit across the aisle from me. “About a week ago,” Alfre began, once the woman was seated. “I was contacted by a woman, Mrs. Stevenson, who lives in this town. I was surprised, as she is well off, and the upper class tends to avoid working with me, as I am not the typical poster child for investigative services. Regardless, she seemed desperate, and through various channels found her way to me. Her husband, Mr. Stevenson, has been missing for a month.”
“A month?” I questioned. A picture, small and square, slipped into my lap from the handful of paper I held. A white couple, standing shoulder to shoulder, presumably Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson, looked out at me without smiles. They were unremarkable in every way. Mrs. Stevenson, small and pretty; Mr. Stevenson, short yet robust, perhaps the barest hint of a bald spot just beginning to show. “Has she not called the police?” I asked.
“She has; however the police have found little, and the case has by and large been set aside in favor of others.” Alfre said.
“Any hints as to where, or why, he’s gone?”
“Not at all. Married for twenty years, getting along as well as can be expected,” Alfre began to pace as she told her story, the other woman listening intently, leaning forward ever so slightly in her seat. “Mr. Stevenson was known to be quiet, but kind. No enemies, no major events at any point in his life. Nothing to suggest anything amiss, when a few months ago he began to act differently. He would become agitated and irrational, even violent at times, though how violent Mrs. Stevenson would not say. He began staying out late at night, when he had always been punctual before. Then, one night, he simply didn’t come home. Mrs. Stevenson has not seen or heard from him since.”
“She contacted you,” I continued. “And then you contacted me.”
“I wanted to bring you on this case. As it stands, it is only Mina and me,” she indicated the woman sitting across the aisle. “The police have come up empty, and after a bit of searching ourselves with few results, I felt we could use some assistance. After all, you tutored under Mr. Utterson, the great detective, did you not? How is Mr. Utterson, by the way?” Alfre cocked her head to the side. “I, as well as many others, was shocked to hear he has decided to take a sudden, extended trip to South America. No one seems to know when he will return.”
“Or if he ever will,” I let slip, before thinking better of it. I felt my heart race in my chest, and fought hard to keep my composure. Oh Cecilia, you alone I can be myself with. With you alone I fear nothing, no judgment, no hate. The woman I am today I owe all to you.
“Ah well.” Alfre shrugged. “I would like your help finding Mr. Stevenson. We have tracked him to his last known whereabouts, a house on the edge of town, though admittedly he has not been spotted there for over a week. Time is running long, and I would like to give Mrs. Stevenson something new she can hope and pray over. Are you interested?”
“I believe I am.” I responded. Though I had a curious feeling regarding Alfre, not to mention the silent Mina, I surmised the case was easy enough and saw little reason to refuse the opportunity.
“Excellent,” Alfre smiled widely. “I would ask you to begin as soon as possible. Also, if you don’t mind—Mina, my apprentice.” She motioned to Mina. “I am teaching her all I know in this life, but there are only so many experiences I can offer her. As such, I would like for her to accompany you on this investigation, however long that may be. I hope this is agreeable to you?”
“Of course,” I said, and nodded a greeting to Mina. The woman gave an almost imperceptible nod back.
Alfre looked at Mina with a bemused look, and continued, “She is like a daughter to me. I have cared for her for quite some time, so do look after her. I’d hate for her to act foolishly and hurt herself.”
“Alfre,” Mina spoke for the first time, sounding cross. She was young, younger than she’d like to appear. Early twenties, I would guess. Younger even than you, Cecilia. Alfre turned her attention back to me. “She is full of spark that may be useful to you. Use her as you see fit. I would have you return to your bed for tonight, and tomorrow begin by searching the house Mr. Stevenson was last seen at. Meet here again at midnight, Mina will be waiting.” I nodded my understanding, and stood to leave. “Miss Mary?” I looked to Alfre, who by now was making her way back up the altar. “Since you are not from here, I feel I should inform you concerning the recent rumors spreading through Franzka. A darkness has fallen over our town. There are rumors of strange creatures prowling the streets at night, attacking anyone caught in the dark, away from the light of the street lamps.” Alfre paused, folding her hands over the nub of her cane she looked up at the stained glass image of Mother Mary. “Of course, these are just rumors. No one has died yet, to my knowledge, but do be careful regardless. I would feel personally responsible if something were to happen to you.”
“If I were eaten by a monster, you mean?” I questioned, amusing myself at the thought. “What an awful bedtime story.”
“Every fairy tale has its roots in reality, Miss Mary. Good night.” With that, Alfre disappeared the way she came, the tapping of her cane slowly fading away in the distance. I looked to where Mina had been sitting to see she too had disappeared. The whole experience was strange, but tucking the few pieces of paper I had under my arm I headed out the church and back onto the street.
Cecilia, you know I am not one to believe in ghosts and ghouls, but the feeling of being watched once again returned to me as I walked down the street, and I would lie if I said I did not breathe a sigh of relief once I stepped foot back into the boarding house, the door firmly shut and locked behind me.
The next day I spent in leisure, waiting for the agreed upon meeting time that night. I looked over the papers given to me the night before by Mina, hoping to glean additional information concerning Mr. Stevenson. Unfortunately, the files were sparse and contained little that I had not already been told by Alfre. I had dealt with many cases such as this before, husbands gone missing after a few good years of marriage and a few short weeks of trouble. While the house Mina and I would go to that night would most likely be a dead end, I assumed we would eventually discover poor Mr. Stevenson somewhere or another down a dark alleyway taking part in any number of miscreant behaviors. From there, it would be up to Mrs. Stevenson what to do.
I thought back to the warning Alfre had given me. Monsters prowling the streets at night, attacking people here and there. I’d like to believe I’m a practical woman, Cecilia. I had initially taken Alfre to be the same, but perhaps I was wrong. Looking back to the picture of the Stevensons, I once again took Mr. Stevenson in as a remarkably unremarkable man. No rhyme or reason for his disappearance, with only a few leads that had left both the police and Alfre stumped. Perhaps he really had been eaten by a monster? I scoffed and dismissed the odd topic as easily as one brushes dust off a shelf, and waited for night to fall.
I set out again a little after eleven thirty, and quickly made my way back to the imposing church in the middle of town. Walking up the walkway to the doors I expected to see Mina waiting for me, but it appeared I was alone. The night was silent, cool, and I wrapped my coat around me, displeased my supposed assistant for the case was seemingly late.
“Hello.” I turned sharply to see the young woman, Mina, standing behind me. Dressed in a long trench coat, I noticed she once again wore trousers, with her hair down to frame her face and keep the chill from her neck. How she developed this habit of appearing out of thin air and sneaking up on people, I will never know.
“Miss Mina,” I greeted.
“Are you ready?” She asked.
I nodded, and she turned with a bounce in her step and set off. I followed close behind, and once onto the street we walked side by side. After a few minutes of walking in silence, I decided to inquire how far away the house was.
“Not far,” Mina said. “It’s on the outskirts of town in a poorer neighborhood.”
“When was the last time you were there?”
“About a week ago, when last we saw Mr. Stevenson.”
“What do you think has become of Mr. Stevenson?” I asked. I am not a talkative individual, as you well know Cecilia; however, I felt if Mina and I did not engage in conversation the quiet streets would turn on me and the old sense of being watched would creep back under my clothes and rake my nerves. So talk it was.
Mina scoffed in response to my question. “Isn’t it obvious? It’s an affair. Mrs. Stevenson claims, in the weeks leading up to his disappearance, Mr. Stevenson began acting distant, coming home late at night. ‘He would not talk to me,’ she lamented over and over. Then came the fighting, yelling and throwing things. ‘So unlike himself!’, she said. The usual sort of thing. I suspect we will find Mr. Stevenson has taken up with a lover of sorts, and has surely skipped town by now. All we have to do is prove it. It’s up to Mrs. Stevenson what to do from there, the poor woman.”
“What does Alfre think?”
“She never tells me her suspicions. She wants me to think for myself.”
“Are you nervous?” I asked. “We’ll be going inside that house tonight. Someone might see us.”
“Me?” Mina asked, wide eyed. “Never. I’m always prepared.” I looked at her with curiosity. Without further prompting Mina pulled aside her coat to reveal a dagger strapped to her side. “For a long time, I’ve had to fight to survive. Alfre has taught me to always be prepared, and always be brave. Although she is not here with us, tonight is no different.”
What a curious young woman! “Alfre raised you from a child, correct?” I asked, and waited to see her reaction. While I pride myself on maintaining proper manners, I have always had a nosey tendency. It is why I became an investigator after all. I was content to let the personal topic drop if Mina so desired, but was interested nonetheless.
“Yes, she did.” Mina looked down, her hands in her coat pockets. After a bit she continued. “I don’t know my family. I know I was born on a reservation, though I scarcely know when or where. All I remember is being wrapped in my mother’s arms, held against her breast until her warmth radiated through me. She smelled of cloves and cedar. Then, I was no longer in my mother’s arms, and I was taken away to a boarding school. They stripped me bare and began anew. They said, the white teachers, I was better off. My family was abusing me, they said. But I don’t remember any of that—All I remember is my mother’s arms, the smell and the warmth they held. Those teachers, they tried to take from me… me. I felt so alone, so alien, and they treated me terribly. When I was old enough, I ran away and lived on the streets. I tried to find my way back home, but couldn’t remember where home was. I would probably be dead now if it were not for Alfre finding me. She’s cared for me ever since. She was born a slave, so I think in some way she understands me, though our circumstances are drastically different.” She looked at me then, and I felt a keen awareness of the color of my skin, pale white in the dim moonlight, and all it affords me. “She’s helping me find my family.” Mina added, almost a bit shyly.
“Do you think you’ll find them?” I asked, surprised by the young woman’s candidness.
“I believe I’ll find my family when we find this missing husband!” Mina grinned widely in a way I suspect only children are capable of.
“You don’t think we’ll find him?”
“Perhaps yes, perhaps no.” She said simply, tossing her head.
Without the presence of Alfre, Mina seemed much more free spirited, and I saw for the first time who I suspect she truly is: a young woman full of life and mischief. Looking back, I understand now why Alfre had teased her as she did the night before.
We rounded one more corner, now firmly in a residential part of town, and walked to the end of the street, a dark patch of trees and various other foliage acting as a roadblock from there on. “This is it.” Mina nodded, as we stood in front of the last house on the block, feeling quite separated from the rest of the neighborhood. Though the street was dark, I was able to make out the dwelling was in need of repair. Small, two stories, the curtains predictably drawn, I was sure it was an eyesore in the daylight. All in all it looked thoroughly, albeit freshly, abandoned. Walking up the porch, I glanced around to confirm we were alone. I could not help but notice, during our walk, not a single soul was out. Though it was indeed late at night, you typically still see or hear some activity bustling about you, for the world never truly sleeps in silence. But all was quiet, not even crickets kept us company. I turned to the door, tried the handle, and was not the least bit surprised to find it locked. Crouching down, I pulled out an old small pouch full of little tools handy in such situations from my pocket and set to work picking the lock. Mina stood over me, observing my every move.
“Are you worried?” She asked suddenly.
“About what? ” I was only half paying attention, concentrating on my work. The lock was old, and needed a great deal of coaxing before it’s pins would relent their hold.
“About the monsters,” Mina asked, suddenly excited. “It’s not just Mr. Stevenson who has disappeared lately after all. Other men have disappeared too. But only men, no women. Don’t you think that’s odd?”
“I supposed it is.” Struggling with the lock, having only two hands at my disposal, I grew frustrated with her questioning. Her willingness to talk suddenly seemed a burden, as she would have been wise to hush up once we arrived at the house. We were now working, and work demands a certain level of professionalism. I saw little merit in discussing opinions of monsters at the moment.
Mina continued, oblivious to my annoyance. “Some people are saying the monsters are eating the men. That they’re some sort of vengeful she-demons feeding off the souls of wayward men. So I was simply wondering if you were worried. You were born a man after all.” I froze, despite myself. The old, familiar fear crept up inside me, dashing all thoughts of the lock and Mr. Stevenson. Mina surely noticed, but continued mercilessly. “Your teacher, Mr. Utterson—that’s you. It’s only recently that you’ve begun calling yourself Mary, right? Alfre told me all about it. So, I was wondering if you were worried about disappearing along with the men.”
I flicked my wrist and the lock on the door jumped beneath my hands. I roughly stood up and turned to Mina. “I am a woman.” I said sternly. “What body I was born in does not concern you. I am not worried about being snatched up by some imaginary ghoul because I am not a man. I am not Mr. Utterson. I am Mary, and I am a woman.”
Mina looked at me with wide eyes. Folding her arms, she leaned back retrospectively. After a moment she commented, “When I was taken from my home and put into the boarding school, I lost a great deal of knowledge regarding who I am. Thankfully, Alfre is helping me learn. Gender is not such an easy thing to define. Man, woman, it is not as stagnant as some believe. If you say you are a woman, you are a woman. That’s good enough for me.”
Satisfied, I nodded. “Thank you.” With that, I turned the handle and opened the door. Pulling out two flashlights, Mina handed me one before flicking on her own, dousing the room in which we entered with yellow light. Not surprisingly, it was a mess. What sparse furniture there was was upturned and thrown across the floor, along with various scattered pieces of paper, coating the room like ash after a fire. Turning to Mina, I motioned forward and we began exploring. Looking for what, I do not know. Taking each step carefully, I swept my light back and forth, waiting for something to jump out at me. Picking up a sheet of paper, Mina looked over what was written.
“What is ‘Return the Kings’?” She asked. Drawing closer, I observed over her shoulder the paper she held. It was covered in messy, smudged writing, illegible in some places and reading ‘Return the Kings’ in others.
“Keep it,” I whispered, and walked away. On the other side of the room, I found the only standing piece of furniture, a small desk set against a wall. It was surprisingly neat in that it was bare of contents save a single sheet of paper. Bending over, I saw a sole line of writing near the top. ‘I Am Returned’. Behind me, I heard a shuffling of papers I assumed to be Mina still exploring. “Mina,” I began. Picking up and folding the sheet of paper, I tucked it safely in my coat pocket. “Let’s move upstairs…” Turning, I flashed my light around the room and caught sight of an odd figure. Crouching low to the ground in the center of the room, two round, yellow eyes flashed back at me. My momentary, rational confusion (or was is curiosity?), gave way to horror as the figure stood up.
The… creature, as I can only label it, I shudder to describe to you, Cecilia. Lord knows the nightmares it will give me. With thick, leathery skin and a large mouth, my eyes were filled with the image of a weeping wound. I heard the creature let out a breath, sounding like a growl only Satan himself could make, and I gagged. Even across the room, the smell was horrendous. Rotting flesh, if I had to say. The creature took a step forward, and I fell back in fear, dropping the flashlight as I clutched myself, tears rolling down my face. I could not move, could not cry out. I was powerless in the presence of such a beast, such a hell hound. Though my light had rolled out of reach, it still captured the inhuman monster as it took one step forward, then another. It crouched down and made as if to leap towards me, surely to end my life. All I thought of was you, Cecilia. Even in this moment of retelling this tale, I so want to be wrapped in your protective arms, to feel safe.
Just as the creature leapt forward, Mina, that brave little soul!, leapt out from the dark onto its back, knocking it to the side. The struggle that ensued was godlike, Mina clinging to the monster’s back as it shrieked in anger, struggling to claw her away. Standing up to its full height, I saw its talons rake Mina’s arm, causing her to cry out in pain. I saw a flash of metal and, just as the archangel Michael stabbed the Devil, Mina brought her dagger down with such strength it pierced the monster’s skull clean through. Shuttering in death spasms, the creature slowly sank to its knees. Mina, with great effort, pulled her dagger from the head of her enemy, letting the limp body fall forward. Covered in blood from her bleeding arm and the monster, she looked at me and I at her. “Are you all right?” She asked.
I nodded, finding little to say and having no voice to say it. Mina’s arm looked bad, and would need to be seen to as soon as possible. Leaning forward, I snatched up my flashlight and held it close. “So much for imaginary monsters.” I whispered, shaking uncontrollably. “Maybe men really are being eaten.”
“Maybe not,” Mina remarked. Finding my footing, I stood up and walked to her side. She pointed to the fallen figure on the ground, and we watched as, before our very eyes, what had once been a monster from hell slowly morphed into a human figure. Looking at the face, my heart dropped. Lying there before us, dead as one could be, was Mr. Stevenson. While my mind lay blank before me, unable to rationalize what I saw, Mina spoke.
“I guess I owe Mrs. Stevenson an apology. For killing her husband and all, that is.”
The quick wit of the young mind, as well as how easily it is able to accept even the impossible, astounds me.
I suppose it will not surprise you to learn I intend to stay in Franzka a while longer. Returning to the church that night, Mina’s good arm slung over my shoulder as I helped her walk up the church aisle, dripping blood on the carpet, Alfre greeted us at the pulpit, looking ever the righteous priest. Grimly, she took Mina from me and, with her cane in tow, led her away. To where, I do not know.
I write this letter to you the morning after these events. Just now, I have received a note from Alfre asking me to meet her once again at the church tonight. ‘While the case of the missing Mr. Stevenson is solved,’ she wrote on church stationary. ‘I trust you will stay on my team to help solve this new turn of events’. Cecilia, I must stay here to help these women. Whatever is going on has the potential to affect us all, and I feel I have already experienced too much to simply walk away, even if it is to return to your side, which will act as my longed-for heaven as I struggle through this Purgatory. I trust you will understand, my love.
Forever and always,
Time to wake up.
Luck listened to the steady chugging of the train as it traced its way along the tracks. He thought of the hot coals making steam of water, propelling the rods back and forth which moved the wheels. He thought of how it all worked together smooth like. Absent-mindedly, he traced the circular face of his wristwatch and smiled.
“What ‘cha smiling about Luck?”
“Shh! Una, Luck’s sleeping.”
“No he’s not,”
“His eyes are closed.”
“But I saw Luck smile.”
“Do people smile when they sleep?”
“Sometimes,” Luck, a man in his late twenties, opened his eyes and looked at the two young Mexican-American girls sitting across from him dressed in matching black dresses. “But I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Ha! I was right!” Una pointed a finger at her identical twin sister, Uno. “I’m super smart, huh Luck?”
Uno shoved her sister to the side. “Not as smart as me though, right Luck?”
Luck smiled. “I think you’re both smart.”
“Yay!” The girls cheered, their jet black pigtail braids (braided by each other every morning) bouncing excitedly, their squabble all but forgotten.
Luck glanced out the window of their compartment as grassy hills peppered with pine trees rolled past. The year was 1930, maybe 1931. Luck couldn’t be bothered to remember. With the Great Depression in full swing, many people found life hard, even unenjoyable. Luck couldn’t understand that, as he always made the best of any situation. Una and Uno were runaways from Texas he met two years prior when the tag team stole his wallet. After tracking the pair down to a nearby alleyway, the sparse contents of his wallet strewn about the greasy ground, he took them under his wing no questions asked. In the time since the trio had traveled the country, going from odd job to odd job and city to city. He never did get his wallet back.
“Hey Luck?” Una crept into his line of vision. “What exactly are we doing on this train anyways?”
“Are we going to have some fun?” Uno asked.
“Of course we are.” Luck said.
“Are we really?” Una asked.
“Of course,” Luck said, sitting up straight in his tan suit and tie. “Have I ever lied to you?”
“Well,” Una looked at Uno.
“Well,” Uno looked at Una. “There’s that thing you keep on saying,”
“Yeah, that thing.” Una said. “That we’re not real.”
“But I feel real.” She poked her face to make sure.
“How come I’m not real?” Uno asked eagerly, leaning forward with her hands on her knees.
“Because my existence is the only existence I can be certain of. All this,” Luck motioned around the train compartment and the world beyond. “Is nothing but a dream. I could wake up any minute and this whole world would disappear just like that.” Luck snapped his fingers as demonstration.
“I’m afraid so.” Luck said, fiddling with his wristwatch. “But! That just means there’s nothing to be scared of, right? Since this is a dream we don’t have to worry about getting hurt or dying.”
Una raised her hand. “What about that one time I broke my arm?”
“Things happen in dreams all the time, but that doesn’t mean they really happen. Remember what I told you about my parents?” The girls nodded. “Such cruelty could only exist in bad dreams.” Luck leaned back and folded his arms. “In this world, my existence I know to be true. Anything else is a result of my imagination.”
Una furrowed her eyebrows in contemplation. “I guess that makes sense…”
“You’re so smart Luck,” Uno marveled. “Your dream is the best!”
“I bet Luck dreamed me up first.” Una glanced at Uno with a smirk, casting aside her doubts.
“Nuh-uh! Mom always said I was your older brother!”
Una rolled her eyes. “Then you started calling yourself my sister! But you started calling yourself a girl after me, so I’m older. Right Luck?”
“Makes sense,” Luck reasoned.
“Mom never did like that,” Uno looked down at her feet, the tips of her black shoes just barely scrapping the floor.
“But we don’t have to worry about that anymore!” Una insisted. “We’re with Luck now.”
“So what are we doing on this train?” Uno switched the subject, throwing herself back against her seat with a huff. “I’m bored.”
“Tell me something: What do you do when you’re having a bad dream?” Luck asked. The girls looked at each other and shrugged. “You have as much fun as you can until it turns into a good dream!”
“But how?” The girls asked, their eyes wide with excitement.
“Why, we’re going to take over this train and rob everyone on board.” Luck said.
“Oh boy!” The twins threw their hands up in the air. “That does sound like fun!”
“They served breakfast about twenty minutes ago,” Luck glanced at his wristwatch to confirm. Silver with a plain black leather strap. Luck swore it looked just like his father’s, though of course they couldn’t be one in the same. “So most people should be in the dining car. We’ll storm in, catching them completely unawares, and take them for everything they’re worth! But first,” Luck stood up and pulled down a suitcase from the overhead storage racks. From its leather confines he pulled two Tommy Guns, which he handed to the twins. Even though Una and Uno were pretty small, they knew how to handle the heavy weaponry. Luck had seen to that. He pulled out a pump-action shotgun, a longtime favorite, for himself. “Now remember girls: this is just a dream. You don’t have to be scared of hurting someone if they fight back, okay?”
“Or of being hurt,” Una chirped.
“Or of being hurt.” Luck nodded.
The trio exited their compartment and walked towards the front of the train, the twins skipping hand in hand. Luck followed whistling the chorus to ‘Coming ‘Round the Mountain’, not a care in the world with his shotgun slung over his shoulder. He wasn’t thinking much about anything, except how sad it was he had to miss breakfast on account of the robbery. The sacrifices he made!
Up ahead a compartment door opened and out stepped a man. Glancing down the hall, his eyes widened when he saw Una and Uno looking so happy with Tommy Guns in their hands. Without a word Luck cocked his shotgun and let loose a shot, the force of which knocked the man back against the wall in a splatter of blood. Walking forward, Luck examined it like an inkblot and saw his mother’s face. Luck wasn’t worried about someone hearing the commotion; the man appeared to be alone, and the dining car was still two cars ahead. Over the rushing wind and early morning chatter, no one would have heard at thing. He was sure of it.
“Wow, did you see that Uno?”
“I sure did!”
“That was really something, huh Uno?”
“Sure was!” An uncomfortable silence settled between the girls, their feigned enthusiasm falling flat.
Luck looked between the young girls—children really. He had never ‘killed’ anyone in front of them before; he could see how the image of murder was shocking to them. He’d been there himself once, after all. Out of habit, he touched his fingers to the black leather strap of his wristwatch. “What did I say earlier?” He began. “You don’t have to feel sorry for this guy because he didn’t exist to begin with. If someone’s not alive, well, you can’t very well kill them, can you?” With that Luck started forward, leaving the bloody scene behind. Squeezing each other’s hand, the two girls followed.
The dining car was filled to the brim, Luck could hear it when he pressed his ear to the door. A whiff of bacon teased his nose, and he felt his mouth begin to water. All those unsuspecting people, eating their jam and drinking their orange juice, just sitting around waiting to be robbed. They had to be feeling pretty invincible, like nothing bad could happen to them. After all, nothing bad ever happened when you were eating breakfast.
“Are you ready girls?” Luck turned to his companions. Kneeling down in front of them, he set his shotgun aside and placed a hand on each girl’s shoulder. “I know things haven’t always been easy for you. Things haven’t always been easy for me. But with the money we get from this we can turn a bad situation into a good one. We can live somewhere real nice with no worries. All we gotta do is take some stuff from people who don’t need it, and we’ll be sittin’ pretty. You two are all I have in this world, so I’m going to take care of you until I wake up, okay?”
The two girls nodded, finding it within themselves to smile. “We’re with you.” Uno said, holding up her Tommy Gun.
“We know what to do,” Una said, giving a thumbs up. “It’ll be easy-peasy.”
“It’ll be fun.” Luck corrected. “Above all else, it’ll be fun.” With that Luck picked up his shotgun and turned towards the door. One deep breath later he kicked it open, Una and Uno following behind in a flurry of rounds aimed at the ceiling. “Thank you, thank you, a villain has arrived!” Luck welcomed the screams and frantic scrambling as the room’s occupants instinctively ducked to the floor. “Listen up! Me and my two friends here are robbers, and we’re here to take all your money and valuables. Nobody do anything stupid, and you’ll all get to go home and kiss your wives, got it?”
“Hey kid, ain’t you a police officer or something?”
Paul shifted his body closer to the dinning car wall in an attempt to hide his face. He hadn’t planned on a robbery when he boarded the train that morning. He was supposed to be on vacation, to ‘gather his nerves’. A week earlier Paul was at the bank, to deposit a paycheck, when a duo of bank robbers burst through the door, Tommy Guns blazing. Two of the mafia’s men, he was sure. The first to dive to the floor, he covered his head and listened as the robbers went about their business with a showy vigor he was sure the papers would eat up later. Terrorizing the customers who looked vulnerable, they threatened to ventilate anyone in the joint who tried to stop them. They shot the bank guard stone cold dead when he reached for his gun. Paul didn’t move a muscle. Sure enough, front page news. ‘Police Doormats for Mafia Takeover.’ The chief called him every name in the book and placed him on paid leave, instructing him to vacate town until the whole ordeal blew over. He hadn’t planned on a robbery at all.
The old man nudged him again, harder. “Stop the robbers, will ya? This watch is a family heirloom.” He motioned to a tarnished silver pocket watch clutched between his knobby fingers. Paul could care less about his pocket watch. A few minutes before he’d been eating breakfast, two eggs over easy with buttered toast, chatting with the old man at the next table over. He was on his way to visit his grandson, and Paul remarked how nice it was some people still placed value on family. Then those guys showed up, two girls and a man, shooting off bullets and orders left and right. The man was young and tall, handsome by anyone’s standards. Slicked back dark brown hair topped a worn tan suit, the edges of a burgundy vest peaking out whenever he turned his body just right. Paul felt his heart skip the usual way whenever he came across a handsome man, and fought to keep any related thoughts at bay. He just couldn’t catch a break.
The two girls, dressed in gaudy lace black dresses, walked here and there stuffing wallets and jewelry in their dress pockets. They were going back and forth about whether they wanted matching pink ponies or not while waving their Tommy Guns in the air for emphasis. The man stood in the middle of the room, looking proud as a new father, occasionally making a great show of checking his wristwatch. “I—I can’t.” Paul said.
“I can’t stop them.”
“Don’t you have a gun?”
“No.” He had turned over his revolver to the chief before he left. Not that it would do him any good, even if he had it. “I really hate violence.” Paul confessed to the old man with a weak smile.
“Figures,” the old man grumbled. “What’d ya become a cop for anyway?” Reaching into his suit jacket he pulled out a pistol, a Colt, and forced it into Paul’s hands. “Listen,” he whispered, staring hard into Paul’s eyes. “There’s no telling what those people are planning, but I want to see my grandson again. I’m not young like I used to be, but you might stand a chance. You have an opportunity to save the train and sort out whatever you got goin’ on in that head of yours, understand? You gotta do this.”
Paul’s hands shook, and the warm handle of the Colt felt slick in his sweaty palms. He didn’t want to, but the intense look of the old man’s face, earned by what Paul guessed was a hard life, left no room for negotiation. He had to try. Taking a deep breath, Paul stood up and pointed the gun.
Luck was surveying the train car while listening to Una and Uno chatter about horses, Uno grabbing a particularly fine pearl necklace from a woman’s hands, when a lone man stood up and pointed a pistol at him. Una and Uno noticed first, dropping what they held to raise their Tommy Guns. No one moved as Luck looked first at the gun, then at the man. Cocking his head to one side, Luck found it amusing a hero would find himself among the rabble, and started laughing.
“Luck?” Una raised her voice. “Should I shoot him?”
Luck subsided into a chuckle. “It’s okay Una, it’s okay. Can’t you see this man is nervous? He’s terrified, about ready to lose his mind from fear. Are you going to stop me?” He asked the man, taking a step forward. “Are you going to stop me with that gun?” Luck took another step forward, then another, then another, until he stood in front of the man pointing a gun at him. “What’s your name, kid?”
The man didn’t answer. The man didn’t say anything. Luck watched as a single bead of sweat rolled down his temple. Luck saw determination in his eyes, when they weren’t skirting around the room like a frightened puppy’s. “Let me tell you something kid,” Luck began. “I’m assuming you stood up just now with the intent to stop us, us being me and the girls. I’m also assuming you’re pointing a gun at me to intimidate me, right? But here’s the thing pal, I’m not scared. I’m not scared of anything.” Luck threw his shotgun down to the floor and took one more step forward, standing so close to the man now he could feel the barrel of the pistol pressing against his chest. “I’m the center of this world. It begins and ends with me. Fact is, you can’t hurt me, and you can’t kill me. So go ahead—shoot. I’ll just wake up from this bad dream I’ve been having and go about my normal life like nothing happened.”
Luck could see the confusion in the man’s eyes. “You’re crazy,” he whispered.
“Luck’s not crazy!” Uno jumped in.
“Yeah, Luck’s telling the truth!” Una followed.
“Go ahead. Prove me right.” Luck taunted, shoving the man in the chest. “Go ahead!” Luck shoved the man again, and he pulled the trigger.
Luck felt a pressure in his chest and staggered back before falling to the ground, dead.
A week after the train incident Paul found himself back in the chief’s office. Much had happened in the past week, but Paul hadn’t noticed. He was still on that train, holding that gun, looking into that man’s eyes as he stumbled over his own feet, eyebrows furrowed together in confusion…
“Jesus boy, look at me when I’m talkin’ to you.” The chief wanted to personally congratulate him on a job well done. Taking out a robber with one shot, saving a train full of civilians, didn’t know he had it in him. “I especially like how you handled the press. Swarming around the second the train got in. Goddamn vultures. Best to give ’em the cold shoulder, I always say.”
“Yes, sir.” Paul nodded. “Sir?”
“What happened to the two girls who were with him? The man, I mean?”
“The brother and sister? Eh, probably on a truck to Mexico. That repatriation is still in full swing, ya know.” The chief kicked back in his chair and propped his feet up on his desk.
“What I don’t get is this Luck guy.” The chief pondered, lighting up a crumpled Camel he’d pulled from his crumpled shirt. He picked up a manila folder from his desk and flipped it open. “Orphaned at ten. Mother killed in a home robbery, father commits suicide the day after. Aged out of foster care, then drops off the face of the earth until last week. His name’s the most tragic part of the whole deal.” The chief took a long drag from his cigarette and let out a cloud of smoke. “Crazy bastard. All of life’s a dream, huh? I tell you what, if I thought I’d dreamt up this world, I’d think I was living in a nightmare too, you know?” The chief took another long drag.
“Yes, sir.” Paul looked out the window through the chief’s smoke, but even then all he could see was a gray haze.
*Note: Claire Stanfield, from a series called Baccano!, was a big inspiration for Luck’s character. They both share a belief in solipsism, a concept I find fascinating. Life Is But a Dream is my take on it.
Long time no talk!
I have a treat coming to you soon (soon as in tomorrow soon). It’s a short story that I do believe is the best things I’ve written to date. I’m beyond excited to share it with you.
I know I haven’t been active in quite some time, and this will continue for a few more months. But! Hopefully by the end of the year I’ll get back to updating on a regular basis. Keep your fingers crossed!
In the meantime, as I said, I’m planning on putting up a new short story tomorrow. As always, thank you for your interest and support. It means the world.
Forever and always,
I feel sick
I am sick
I can’t breath
What’s wrong with you?
Something is on my
What’s wrong with you?
The whole world
my entire life
a weight weighs me down
I can do nothing
counting the divots in
I count and count
and only grow closer and closer
What’s wrong with you?
Frustration, anxiety, triggers,
in a merry circle
we go ’round again
*NOTE: Hey guys! So this is a not so happy post this week, but I was really inspired(?) by a recent panic attack and wanted to share the result. Also, I wanted to try out a new style for my poetry as I have been reading a lot of Emily Dickinson lately, so if you noticed a difference that’s why. I hope you have a good week (panic attack free) and I’ll see you next time!