Part 7 – The Plan

Part 0 – Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3 – Part 4 – Part 5 – Part 6

Time disappeared into a pool, memories dropping into it like rainfall rippling into chaos as though their sequence had never held relevance. Swimming in the darkness, Kerin’s thoughts played free of her control, the woman herself just a passive bystander. A man’s voice, one she thought she recognized but wasn’t relevant to the images, echoed through the emptiness. “Dream,” he said, but Kerin fought the order with what little control she could muster. She focused on the darkness, unsure of what was going on but feeling as though her mind was not her own.  Whispers and beeps and the breaking of glass rang loudly in the forefront of her mind as images of tubes and bars and dozens of familiar faces played over at an alarming rate.

Slowly, she began to see what she thought was real as the dreams overlayed images that weren’t familiar. A dark room came into view with translucent memories scattered against the walls. Corners appeared first, then creases in the walls, what appeared to be rust stains from where the ceiling had leaked. The scent of dust and chemicals filled her nose, and she held her breath against it.

“Sh’ain’t dreamin’ anymore,” a gruff voice spoke, then a crash sounded. Kerin’s memories faded from the walls, though the dark room was no more clear than it had been a moment ago. A stout shadow hobbled toward a door, opening it to reveal piercing beams of light. She closed her eyes against the brightness. Her heart and breathing had slowed drastically, a defense mechanism that kicked in automatically when she felt threatened. The voice grumbled a few things as its silhouette exited the room, shutting her into the darkness again when the door closed behind it.

Her nostrils flared as her golden eyes darted around. Instinct being what it was, she wouldn’t even dare try to move, not until she knew she was alone. Attempting to turn her head to search the rest of the room, she felt a pressure on her forehead holding her in place. How had she gotten here? All of her memories still felt scattered, images from years ago feeling as though they had been only moments before. It was hard to determine the series of events, to understand what had come just before this.

Aside from a faint beeping – the last remaining part of her dream that faded slowly – the room was silent. She smelled nothing but the dust and chemicals that had so rudely greeted her moments before. Muscles tensing, she attempted to break away from whatever bonds surely held the rest of her in place. A loud tearing echoed in the room as the leather straps tore away, accompanied by the metallic tink of a few small metal pieces hitting the hard floor and rolling away. Kerin pulled the straps from her forehead and wrists, tossing them aside as she used her hands to rip the belts from her ankles as well. The table she was on was hard metal that smelled like aluminum, but it was hard to tell with all of the other chemical scents swirling in the air.

Regardless of how she got there, she needed to get out. The room was cold, and she didn’t do well in the cold. Her eyes scanned for windows or doors, anything other than the one that shadow had hobbled through, but found nothing. She backed against the wall, touching a hand to it while keeping her eyes on the room. It was so dark, she could only barely make out the shapes of some tables and fixtures that she didn’t recognize. Digging her fingers into the wall behind her, her fingertips bore holes in the cement wall they rested on. While it would not be the most stealthy escape, she at least knew that breaking down the walls would be an option.

“I’m sure there are more civil ways for us to deal with this,” a familiar voice echoed in the room. She couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but immediately the memories of the grocery store came to the forefront of her mind. “Besides, I’m sure the kind of attention that would attract would be bad for your rep, Sugar.”

“What the actual fu-” Kerin started, her temper kicking in far quicker than usual. She didn’t like being cornered, tricked, or trapped. Well, nobody did, but this woman had a particular distaste for situations like this.

“But, by all means, if you think that’s the best way to handle this, go ahead. You’d certainly be making my job easier.” She could hear the voice chuckle in the darkness, but still saw nothing.

Her nostrils flared again as she tried, in vain, to pick up his scent. It made no sense that he didn’t have one, and she could only assume it was some sort of trick. It would have to wear off sometime, she thought. Assuming that was how his magic worked. She really had no idea. “Listen. I already told you I have nothing to say to you, so what the hell do you want me here for?”

“I already got the answers I needed,” the man retorted, suddenly seeming less playful than before. “Why I’m keeping you here is simple: you are dangerous.”

Kerin scoffed, feigning over-confidence to disguise her fear of the unknown. “I threw sugar at a pixie. Had I realized the world had gotten so sensitive about bullying-”

“Let’s just skip over the part where you lie to me repeatedly and get to the portion where I explain to you what I already know. If you feel like working with me, then, we may have something to talk about. Deal?”

Kerin paused. Working with him? How did they get from strapping her to a table in a dark room to working with him? She shook her head in the darkness, eyes still skimming the room anxiously. Though she didn’t know how much she could get, she was trying to buy time.

The man let out a sigh in response. “Why not?”

So he could see her shake her head. That was unfortunate, and put him at a great advantage if she did try to pull anything. He was fast, strong, had no scent, and could see in the dark. What kind of unfair bullcrap was this world coming to? “Sorry, honey, but I’m selective with my friendships. Simply put, I just don’t like the way you smell.”

He chuckled again, and she thought that she heard movement to her left. Quickly, she turned her head to look at the space next to her, but found nothing but more empty wall space. “If it’s any consolation,” the man added, his voice still seeming to come from everywhere in the echoing room, “you smell like an animal.”

A shiver went through her body, half attributed to the chilly air around her and half to the fact that he seemed to know more than he should. “Welcome to the New World,” she teased, “where even the humans have a little something on the side. It’s not a crime, you know.”

“No, but you don’t exactly fall under that description. Do you, Subject K?”

Her fingers dug farther into the walls, and she could hear the tiny pebbles of cement breaking away and falling to the floor by her feet. “I don’t know what you’re-”

“See, originally, I thought you were a weapon released on the city for some nefarious purpose. I have to admit, you weren’t easy to find. In fact, I think we can wholly thank fate for having brought you to me. Imagine my surprise, though, when I learned how you actually found your way into the city from Traux Labs. You know, I would venture to guess that, if you had come to me first, we could have skipped the past three years of hunting and gone straight to what I can do for you…” The man let his voice trail off at the end of his seductively elusive offer.

Kerin’s curiosity burned nearly as hot as her temper and her fear. She didn’t want to know how he had found that out, or what else he knew. That was the second time he had hinted at being allies, and she was clearly in no position to back away from such an offer. Pride aside, she could use someone like him far more than he used her, if she played her cards right. “If you’re so interested in being friends, why the leather belts and the dark room with no escape route, huh?”

“Consider it an insurance policy. I know the nature of snakes, and would rather not be bitten – especially by you, given the nature of your abilities.”

The woman grinned, removing her tense fingers from the holes they had bore in the wall. A few small rocks tumbled to the floor. “Alright, you’ve flattered me into attentiveness. But I don’t trust you.”

“That’s preferable, since I don’t trust you either. It’ll keep us both on our toes. So long as you can handle your distrust rationally-”

“Get to the point. Having my attention doesn’t mean you have my patience, you know.”

The man chuckled again, a sound that seemed closer to her than it had been yet. In front of her, maybe? Above? Her eyes darted through the darkness as he spoke. “Whatever you say, Sugar. Well in summary, you have a few things that are useful to me. Your abilities, for one, and your intense distaste for Aiden Traux.”

Kerin scoffed. “Intense distaste is an understatement.”

“Yes, yes, I can imagine. Considering our mutual hatred, I propose a deal: I will no longer see you as an enemy, and you do whatever is necessary to bring down Traux from the inside. It would-”

He stopped speaking as soon as she held up a hand to stop him. “I’m not going back inside there.”

“You wouldn’t be alone.”

“Yeah, I don’t think you get it. I didn’t say, ‘You’re going to have to send someone with me and do a lot of buttering up and probably lick my shoes to get me to do this’. I said I am not. Final. There is no other option. If you want to tear it down so badly, go in there yourself.” She shivered again, this time entirely from the temperature in the room.

There was a short pause before the man responded finally. “If I go in there, it will start a war. If someone – anyone – with abilities broke into that lab, it would come down on the heads of every person who lives in this city that isn’t human. Boulder City would be in a worse state of chaos than when the worlds first merged, and countless species and modified humans would be detained or otherwise punished simply for my actions.”

“So what?”

The man sighed. “So, my intention is not to cause chaos, but to end it.”

“And how will my destroying the place or whatever you want me to do be any different?”

“Because,” he replied, his voice more stern now than before. “You were created there. You were born in those labs, manufactured as an artificial life-form for whatever purpose. Your rebellion would bring down the company, so long as word spread outside of the building, because people would have to see what Traux is doing and how dangerous it can be. It can’t be anyone else. If you are the one to go in, and you do enough damage that the world can’t help but notice, then eyes will be opened to the monsters that are being created there. People will start asking questions, wondering what Traux intends to do with these weapons if not integrate them into society. Best case scenario, your actions will lead to the downfall of the company. Worst case scenario, your anarchy will lead to a revolution that will leave Cyber Corps Industries wounded and open for another attack.”

Kerin took this all in. This man clearly knew more than he should, and far more about her than she was comfortable with. “So you want me to go in there, wreck up the place and piss a bunch of people off. Worst case-scenario, I die in the process. Best case-scenario, I’m in prison for life or some kind of lab where they detain the violent and insane or something like that. That about right?”

“As I said before, you won’t be alone. I already have a plan for how to get you out safe and sound, assuming you don’t get yourself killed. You’ve done it before. The only difference is that, this time, we need to make sure that people know about it. I saw the slaughterhouse that was left in your wake, the chaos that you caused in your escape. It was…disgusting. But it’s exactly what we need. This time, though, there will be someone there to document it. Proof of what happens in there, and what can happen if-”

“But I will still be the monster,” she replied, chuckling after. “Fine. Yeah, sure, fine, I’ll do it. But don’t think I’m doing this to help you. Truth is, I’ve been hungry for months. If you’re giving me a free ticket to an all-you-can-eat buffet, I guess I’ll put forth the work to earn it.”

“I’m glad that we coul-”

She interrupted again, feeling very much now like she had the upper leg in all of this. He really did need her. His plan would be useless without her, and that meant that she had room to bargain. “Not so fast, pretty boy. I’ll have a list of demands. First, turn the damn light on. And warm this place up. If we’re going to keep talking like allies, then you’re gonna treat me like a damned princess, deal?”

There was a pause, and she thought she heard whispers. “Anything you want, Sugar,” the man replied, and suddenly the room was filled with light. At first, it was blinding, and it took everything in Kerin not to shield her eyes from the brightness. She was not so trusting as to give him that advantage, though, in case it were some kind of trick. Sure, he had all the time and opportunity in the world while they’d stood in darkness to make a move if he was going to, but that did not register for the perpetually paranoid woman.

As her eyes adjusted, she could see more clearly the cold gray room that she had been imprisoned in. Her eyes avoided the details as they quickly searched for the man she’d been talking to and found nobody. She stepped forward curiously, nostrils flaring again as she instinctively smelled for what she already knew had no scent. “If you think being all hidden and mysterious is charming or intimidating, you’re wrong,” she lied. No response came. Turning around to face the wall behind her, her eyes took in the damage she’d done to the cement there. She traced up the wall to the ceiling, turning to skim it carefully, and then the rest of the room. “You’ve seriously been talking to me through speakers this whole time? The hobbly silhouette guy is braver than you.”

“Sorry, Sugar, I just like watching you squirm on the inside,” the man chuckled, his voice very clearly coming from behind her. She turned quickly to face the wall that she had been looking at only moments ago to find him leaning against it non-chalantly. His long dark hair trailed over his shoulders, which were covered in a dark grey jacket that went down to his knees. He was still in the outfit he had worn at the grocery store underneath the jacket, which told her that she likely hadn’t been there for very long. “Any more demands? Or were light and warmth all you cared about?”

As he asked, a space heater in the corner came on of its own accord. After only a moment, she could already feel the warmth on her legs. “Yeah, stop calling me Sugar.”

The man’s face scrunched up a bit. “I can’t make any promises on that one. The only other thing I know you as is Subject K. I just thought you’d like Sugar better. You could tell me your real name, but since you haven’t exactly been forthcoming with information, I just assumed it would be pointless to ask.”

He wasn’t wrong. While she had no legal “birth” name, Kerin wasn’t exactly comfortable giving out the title. It felt too personal, and she wasn’t exactly in a giving mood after all of this. “Well, you haven’t told me yours either,” she chided.

“Touche. I’m Israel,” he replied without hesitation, motioning with his hand to imply it was her turn.

She watched his hand motion with a raised brow. “What? For all the information you seem to know about me, all I know is your name. I’m keeping mine until you come up with something worth the trade.”  Come to think of it, she was wondering if he didn’t already know her name, and was just messing with her.  Best not to test those waters, though.  She was far too stubborn to turn just because logic told her to.

“Whatever you say, Sugar,” he said with a grin, winking one of his glowing blue eyes at her. How he had kept them from lighting up the room when they were in total darkness was beyond her, but it was most unsettling how she seemed to have a hard time tearing away from them. Of course, he was attractive and even charming, but Kerin wasn’t the fawning type. Something else was keeping her attention, almost as though she was being forced to look.

She pursed her lips irritably, but knew that she had set herself up for that one. “Fine. Sugar it is. Don’t expect me to be sweet, though.”

He laughed. “Oh. I don’t. So. We have a deal? Or were there more things on your list?”

Kerin thought. “I’ll get back to you on that. I assume I’m free to leave?” After he nodded his response, she continued. “Fine. You just give me a heads up a few days before everything is about to go crazy, and I’ll-”

“You’ll know when it’s time, trust me.”

“Trust you?” she forced a laugh, rubbing her arms with her hands to try and bring some warmth to them. The heater was helping, but not quickly enough. She could already feel herself getting tired.

Israel chuckled lightly, “Yeah, probably not the best choice of words. Still. I won’t really have time to give you a heads up on anything. Some factors are out of my hands.”

“Oh, that’s great news. And here I thought you had everything under control. So, do you have a cell phone?” Israel shook his head. “Pager? Beeper? Carrier pigeon? Magical owl? Minions?”

He chuckled. “I guess you could call them minions. Yes, I’ll have one of my minions drop off some information for you soon. Everything is pretty compartmentalized, though, so information is on a need-to-know basis.”

Of course it was. “Well, where exactly do you think you’ll be dropping this information off?”

“Your place of work, naturally.”

Kerin laughed, crossing her arms over her chest. She could only assume that he hadn’t seen her whole life’s story, just the parts that were relevant to her escape, otherwise he would realize that was impossible. “And how exactly do you intend to do that?”

“It’s simple, Sugar,” Israel said, pushing off the wall and moving toward the door. He set his hand on the wall by a light switch. “I have a wish,” he added before flicking the switch off, again. Kerin didn’t have to see to know, despite all logic, that she was now somehow alone in the room.

Advertisements

Part 5 – The Frying Fish

Part 0 – Part 1 – Part 2 – Part 3 – Part 4

Jordan Gills had one thing going for him, and one thing only: he was smart. After almost breaking his hand trying to open a jar, Jordan had invented a device that would open anything for him using only a half a dozen paper-clips and twice as many rubber bands. Talking to girls had always been impossible for him, mostly because he was a terrifying smelly fish boy. The gills didn’t bother people too much – even his scales weren’t as bad as some of the other people around – but he was pretty sure that not having eyelids was what was really putting women off.  Really, though, not knowing if someone is staring at you while you sleep or far away in dream land can be very unsettling. He’d had a girlfriend, once, but he was pretty sure she was just using him to satisfy her insatiable sexual appetite. When he’d found out she was sleeping with almost half of their city block (that week, anyway), he had forgiven her, and apparently his forgiveness was what made her want to leave him. She said that being with him had just been “too easy”, whatever that meant.

The young man worked at the local arcade on weekends, and on weekdays as a cook in the back of some trashy fast-food restaurant that mainly served fish. They’d been quick to hire him because he looked like he could make the perfect mascot, then stuffed him in the back when they realized his social skills on the register were actually costing them more money than it was worth. Jordan knew they didn’t fire him because of some discrimination thing, since the place was a fish fry joint and he figured there would have to be a lawsuit in there somewhere if they got rid of the fish guy. If they fired him, he could easily file a claim against the company, saying that the entire time he’d worked there he had dealt with cannibal puns and offhanded threats to throw him on the fryer. So long as he kept his mouth shut about all that, though, he kept the job. It wasn’t like he liked it or anything, but it wasn’t exactly easy to get a job when even goblins thought you were icky.

Today was Wednesday, and when other people were opening their eyes, Jordan’s were already staring wide at his ceiling. He’d been up for hours, mostly in a meditative state somewhere between consciousness and actual sleep. It was hard to sleep when you could see everything all the time.  Even in the pitch darkness of his room, a small gust of wind would send a series of shadows dancing across his wall. Once the sun came up, though, that was the end of any real sleep he’d managed to get. If his eyes weren’t so big and round, he would have been able to wear one of those sleep mask things, but that would only be the equivalent to rubbing cloth on your eyeballs and calling it a sleep aid.

As usual in the mornings, Jordan wasted no time in getting ready. He slipped his webbed feet into a loose pair of shoes and put on a nice collared shirt (with long sleeves, of course, to hide as much of his finned arms as possible), a long pair of loose jeans, and the “Frying Fish” hat which donned a small flying fish jumping out of the ocean and into a bubbling pot of grease. Leaving the bedroom, he hurried down the stairs to meet his mother, who always drove him to his weekday job. Frying Fish was several miles away, and the last time that Jordan had tried to walk it, he’d had a horrible asthma attack and missed the entire day of work in exchange for hospital bills. The Penny Pincher Arcade was just down at the corner – where he worked on weekends – so he usually walked there (though, sometimes his mother insisted she let her drive him, and he couldn’t really say no).

Despite being nineteen, Jordan did still live with his parents. It wasn’t that he couldn’t afford to move out, but he really didn’t have any reason to. His parents liked having him home so much that they actually offered to let him live there for free if he promised to be home for dinner every night, and he couldn’t think of any downside to that kind of arrangement. It’s not like he was missing out on any wild parties or sexy nights with promiscuous girls, so he stayed.  College wasn’t exactly on his to-do list, either.  Between the cost of schooling and the idea of having to sit in classes with more people who would plug their nose in disgust, Jordan could easily learn all he needed to via the internet.

His voice had a sort of gurgling sound to it, as though his tongue were stuck in the back of his throat. “Ready?” he asked his mother as he came down the stairs. She had been bent over the dish washer fidgeting with something, but raised her beady-eyed green-scaled head to flash a wide smile at him. Her mouth stretched all the way across her face, and her big fish lips made it even harder to ignore. Jordan was lucky that he’d gotten his father’s lips, as they were thinner and less pronounced.

“One moment, dear, I’m trying to fish the fishwasher.”

Jordan sighed. “Did…you just say ‘fish the fishwasher’?”

His mother laughed, a girlish giggle that sounded like bubbles gossiping. “Oh come on, it was funny.”

He shook his head. “I don’t really get it.”

“Fish…instead of fix? Fish instead of dish?” she said, as if that explained everything. “Oh, pshaw, you’re no fun. You’re just a fish in the mud.”

Jordan stared a moment, then decided to drop it. His mother was weird, and sometimes the best thing he could do for both of them was to just let it happen and then move on with his life. “Well, I’ve got to be there in ten minutes. Can you fix it when you get back?”

She dried her webbed fingers on her apron and nodded. “I’ll just have your father fish it when he gets home,” she giggled again, then scooted him out the door.

In the car, Jordan was mostly silent. His mother, however, never ran out of things to say. In the first five minutes of the drive, he had learned all of the secrets of menopause and was content to just stare out the window. For once, he was glad that he couldn’t close his eyes, because he feared the mental images he would start to have if he did. Suddenly, mid-rambling, his mother stopped to ask a question. “Speaking of children, when are you going to marry that girlfriend of yours?”

“Mom, I already told you, she broke up with me,” Jordan replied, eyes skimming a park that they passed as they drove.

She made a tsktsk sound. “That’s not enough to stop true love. You know, when I was your age, I left your father three…no…four times before I finally married him.”

“That’s not healthy, mom.”

“Oh, what do you know? I’m the one who’s been married twenty years.”

“Twenty three.”

“So, when are you going to propose to her?”

“I’m not, mom, okay? Just drop it, please.”

“Well, if you don’t propose to her, how am I supposed to have grandchildren?”

Not this again. “Maybe you can just adopt her, I’m sure she’ll get pregnant sooner or later from one of the hundreds of guys she sleeps with.”

“Oh, honey, you’re being too harsh on the girl. She’s young and adventurous, she’ll settle down one day, and you want to make sure that when she does it’s with you.”

“She’s a succubus, mom. She’s not going to just settle down one day.”

His mother slapped him across the face with a webbed hand, swerving the car slightly as she did.  He turned to look at her looking straight at him as she drove. “That is racial stereotyping, and no son of mine will be judging people based off of their heritage, do you understand?”

“Mom! Keep your eyes on the road!” The car veered, and she moved both webbed hands back to the steering wheel and her eyes back out the front window. She was clearly still upset, though, and kept lecturing.

“You know when I was your age, we accepted everyone for what they were on the inside, not the outside. My best friend was a dwarf, and she married a vampire, and they had little succubus babies who all grew up and settled down and I will be damned if my own son will say bad things about interracial marriages, I just can’t believe that I raised someone who would be so-”

Jordan couldn’t listen to this. Not only did everything she just said make no sense whatsoever, but it was all completely made up.   It was pretty common knowledge that, ‘in her day’, things were more racially tense than ever before.  That was the time when the dimensions had merged, and everyone hated everyone except their own kind.  His mother’s best friend wasn’t a dwarf, and there was literally no way for a dwarf and a vampire to have all succubi children.

More importantly, though, succubi didn’t calm down when they got older. In fact, their sex drives got worse with every passing year. It wasn’t a choice they made.  It wasn’t an addiction they could just give up.  It was in their nature. The only way one of them could settle down is if they found one person who had just as active a sex drive as them, and no job – because keeping up with her sex drive would be a full-time job in and of itself. The guy would also probably have to be some form of super-man with incredible stamina to keep her not only interested but going at all hours of the day and night. No, succubi weren’t loyal creatures. Though, Jordan would have been willing to let her sleep with anyone to satisfy her needs, if Lily had stayed with him. He understood the nature of things, and if it meant keeping her happy and healthy, he would have allowed almost anything.

“-and when I say big, I mean BIG. But you know, that didn’t keep me away from your father, and look where we are now. I’m telling you, Jordy, if you love her, don’t let her leave you like this. I’ll call her mother if you want, would that help?”

The car pulled up at the restaurant just in time. “No, mom, I’ve got it under control. Maybe you’re right. I’ll talk to her tonight, okay?” he said as he climbed out of the car.

“Oh, that’s wonderful Jordy. Well, have a nice day at school.”

He closed the door with a sigh, then turned to the open window behind him. “Work, mom. It’s work.”

“Oh,” she giggled, “My fishtake.”

Jordan groaned and hurried into the restaurant, only to be greeted by the unsurprisingly angry face of his boss. “You’re late.”

“I’m five minutes early,” he corrected, and pointed at the clock.

The tall man, surprisingly human in appearance save for his sharp teeth and slitted red eyes, looked up to the clock then back down to Jordan. “You’re supposed to be here ten minutes early, which means you’re five minutes late.”

Jordan wasn’t about to argue with him. He resigned with yet another sigh. “You’re right, I’m sorry, sir.”

“I’m docking your pay for the first hour. Now get into the kitchen, there are fish to fry. And you better be quick today, not like yesterday, or I’ll have your ass on the fryer instead.”

There it was. Jordan nodded silently and rushed back into the kitchen.

~ ~ ~

Most of the day proceeded normally: Jordan had been left alone to cook the food, the restaurant was understaffed, and the mindless monotony let his mind slip into a steady stream of thoughtlessness.  While some people let their minds wander while they did menial tasks, Jordan preferred to let his stop altogether.  It was better that way.

About halfway through his shift, the girl at the counter had pulled his boss back into his office for a ‘talk’.   As Jordan stood at the fryer, he could hear his boss yelling angrily at his coworker behind the closed door. The fish-boy flipped another orange patty over on the grill as he tried to pretend he wasn’t listening. In truth, he couldn’t hear much, but he was already dreading the side-effects of this interaction. He had seen the girl go back there with him with a very distraught look on her face, and by the tone in their boss’s voice it was evident that he had zero sympathy for whatever was bothering her. Not that that was a surprise, but Jordan knew that this altercation would only make the already-mean man angrier than usual. He didn’t have to guess who that anger would be taken out on.

The door swung open abruptly as the small human girl stormed out of the office, the boss not two steps behind her. His face was beet red to match his slitted red eyes. Storming to the front of the store, the girl hurried out of the building without a word to her coworkers. That was probably for the best. While Jordan hated to see anyone in that kind of pain (especially when the jerk who ran this place was to blame), he really didn’t want to get roped into anything if he could avoid it. He already knew that the rest of the day was going to be hell.

“Well, you fishy freak,” the man’s angry voice sounded behind him, and Jordan gulped. “Little miss ‘my-social-life-is-more-important-than-my-job’ decided she gets the day off to keep her stupid sister from marrying a werewolf. You know what that means?”

Jordan shook his head, flipping over another patty and not saying a word. He felt a strong hand on his shoulder turning him, and his body wheeled to face the front of the store. “It means you’re on counter-duty. Remember, no smiling at the customers; you’ll only freak them out. Follow the prompts on the screen, and for God’s sake, kid, put some cologne or something on. We want people to think fish are appetizing, not disgusting pond-scum.” With that, he shoved the young man slightly, sending him lurching forward toward the register, spatula in hand.

At the counter waited a rather impatient-looking young elven woman, dressed in what Jordan thought was far too formal for a fast food dinner break. She wore a three-piece suit with a skirt for bottom, and her fine blond hair was pulled back tight against her scalp. As Jordan approached the counter, she stopped tapping her foot and tilted her head with a grin.

“Oh, Tony would love this,” she said, pulling a small pad from her breast-pocket and scribbling something on it. “Do you fly?”

“Um, no?” Jordan replied uncomfortably, setting the greasy spatula down on the counter next to the register.

The woman eyed it with disgust for a moment before turning her bright eyes back to him. Gosh, she was pretty. “Well, I can still work with that. Another time, though. Right now, I need food,” she said, then tore a sheet of paper off of the small pad she held and handed the piece to Jordan. “All that to go, please. Oh, and, um…” She looked up at the menu above his head, and Jordan glanced down at the screen. He was told to follow the prompts, and he really didn’t want to mess this up – again.

“Welcome to Frying Fish,” he said out of turn, reading directly off of the screen. “Would you like to try our Deluxe-” He paused, sighing a bit to himself before continuing on begrudgingly. “Our Deluxe Fish Dish for only one dollar more if you order the Gone Fishin’ combo meal.” He wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be a question or a statement, but by the end of the sentence it felt more like a nail in his foot than anything.

The elf stared at him a moment, confused at how the conversation had backtracked. She reached over the counter and snagged the paper from him, skimming down the list of whatever was on there before shaking her head quickly. As she handed the paper back to him silently, her eyes went back up to the menu. “Don’t you guys serve anything but fish?” she asked, seeming disappointed with the selection.

Jordan looked at the screen, pressed ‘no’, and read the next prompt. “How can I serve you today?”

The woman’s eyes now came down to his big bulging ones, staring at him a moment. She tapped a finger to her lip, “Are you dumb, or just don’t care if I have a good experience?”
Again, he looked to the prompts, but nothing had changed. Jordan sighed a bit, “I am not good with people.”

From the back room, he could hear his boss shout, “Follow the prompts, kid!”

The elf laughed, a singsong sound that made the small fish-boy turn a funny shade of blue. “Ohhhhh, I get it. You’re new here.”

“I’m not-”

“Well, try and take it slow. But not too slow, because this place smells something awful. I’ll take that Deluxe Fish thing you mentioned, whatever that is, and everything on this list. Think you can handle that?” She didn’t seem like she was trying to be condescending, but that didn’t change that Jordan was feeling more like a useless waste of space the longer she talked.

He looked down to the sheet of paper, then back up to the tiny woman. There were enough orders on this list to feed a small army, and she didn’t look like she could finish even one of them in a single sitting. “It’s going to be a while,” he said, knowing that he was the only cook there, and now the only counter-person as well. God forbid his jerk boss get off his butt and do some actual work.

She pursed her lips in response. “Well, what exactly is a while?”

Looking at the clock, Jordan sighed a little. He could tell she didn’t like that, because she placed her hands irritably on her hips. She certainly was moody. The dinner rush was about to come in, and he had no idea how he was going to take orders and cook them at the same time. Never mind the fact that this woman had probably just ordered enough food to fill their quota for the dinner hour, which he would have to get done before anyone else’s food or she was probably going to raise hell about the smell. The fish-boy started breathing fast, gills on the side of his face flapping furiously as he started to panic. “A-about thirty minutes, give or take.”

The woman rolled her eyes and, much to his surprise, smiled. “Fine, then Tony will be coming to pick them up. Do you need to write that down or give me a number or…?”

Pressing a webbed-finger to the screen, Jordan started inputting the order for the woman. “No, I uh, I just need you to pay before you leave.”

“Before I get my food?” she asked bewildered, as if that were a novel concept.

Jordan’s large fish eyes looked up to her, silently begging her not to make this more difficult than it already was. “Yes, ma’am. It’s store policy,” he replied sheepishly.

Thankfully, the woman relented, reaching into her small purse and pulling out her IDAF card. She slid it into the small slot on the front of the register while Jordan was still inputting the order. “Do I have to wait around for you to finish poking the computer, or are we done here?”

Of all the things to do at a register, the thing that Jordan was best at was inputting the orders. He’d only had to glance at the paper once before the memory of it was imprinted in his mind. He finished navigating the screens just as her question was finished, and the order went through to the back. Now he just had to hope that nobody else came in for a while. “Thank you for your business and have a fishy day,” he said, loathing every word of it. Is that where his mother was getting all of those fish puns?

The woman hurried out of the restaurant without so much as a thank you, and Jordan wasted no time in removing himself (and his spatula) from the register to get started on that order. As soon as he got back to his grill, though, a bell rang at the front of the building. He hadn’t even had time to start on the other woman’s food before someone else was in the store needing help. It was going to be a long day.

Shuffling to the front of the restaurant, Jordan’s eyes quickly went to the floor as he saw who was at the register. If the fiery-red skin and slitted-orange eyes hadn’t been a dead giveaway, it would have been the two long horns reaching out from a pile of curly black hair. “Lily,” he greeted his ex as coldly as he could manage. She wore nothing but a bikini, even in the cool spring weather. He could feel the heat emanating off of her from the other side of the counter as she hung her arm around a tall, muscular man’s waist. The man was tanned from head to foot, wearing a shirt that showed off all of his muscles, with a patch of blond hair on his head that Jordan thought looked ridiculous against his dark skin. From what he could tell, the guy seemed completely human, but that didn’t really surprise him. If she’d sleep with a fish-boy, what would keep her from a human? At least they didn’t smell bad, though the guy must have been thick as a board to be dating a demon.  At least fish-boys had scales.  Humans were squishy and easily cooked.

“Jordan,” she hissed seductively, removing her arm from her newest boy-toy and leaning over the counter. Her upper-arms pinched her chest as her pointed tail reached over the counter to pet the scales under his chin. “My darling, how are you?”

The fish-boy looked to the screen. “Welcome to Frying Fish. Would you like to try our Deluxe Fish Dish for only one dollar more if you order the Gone Fishin’ combo meal?” He had enough smarts this time to read it as a question, despite the screen having the wrong punctuation.

Lily’s blood-red lips folded into an exaggerated pout. “What, no love?” She glanced over her shoulder to her man-friend who stood staring at the menu as if he didn’t even care that she was flirting. “Lenny, be a dear and go the hell away, mkay?”

“But I didn’t order my-”

“Get the hell out of the store!” she screeched, and Jordan jumped. The blond man didn’t seem startled, however, but did get a bit irritated.

“Fine,” he retorted, turning to walk out the door. “Bitch,” he muttered over his shoulder.

Lily smiled, but a hiss sounded behind it that caused little streams of steam to seep from her nostrils. “There. Now you can talk. Don’t have to be intimidated by the competition. You know how it goes, darling.”

Jordan hit ‘no’ on the screen. “What do you want?”

“The script!” his boss shouted from the back room, and Jordan’s webbed hand went into a tiny fist on the counter.

“How can I serve you today?” he asked, quietly, wishing now that the prompt had been worded differently.

The woman on the other side of the counter giggled, a sound that had almost a purr behind it in her chest. “Oh, you know what I like to hear, baby,” she laughed, then leaned farther over the counter towards him. “I think I can handle the Fish Stick, if you want to give it to me. And a side of hot sauce, just to spice things up. Do you think one will be enough? Maybe I should get two, just in case. I can always save the other one for later. You know how much I love your Fish Stick.”

Jordan sighed. “Knowing you, I’m sure you could handle all the fish sticks in this place and still be hungry for more. You want that to go, or do you plan on staying here and torturing me?”

She bit her lower lip, tail whipping back and forth behind her excitedly. While Lily lived for this kind of flirtation, Jordan loathed every second of it. Not because he didn’t want her attention directed toward him, but because he knew the nature of it. It wasn’t because she loved him or wanted him; it was because she was insatiable. “I hadn’t thought of torture, but if you’re offering, I have the time,” she winked with a laugh.

“Lily, you can’t just come here and-”

A loud bang sounded from the back of the building, and his boss came storming up. “I told you to follow the damned script, you imbicile. Can’t you just do one simple-” His words caught in his throat as his eyes landed on Lily and all of her mostly-nude glory. Straightening his collar, the man cleared his throat and addressed her directly. “I’m sorry for this idiot, he’s, and you’re- wow.”

Lily giggled girlishly, “I am, aren’t I?”  Her pointed red tail reached up to her cheek to caress it gently, the way most women would use their hands to feign sheepishness. Lily’s hands were too busy on the counter, outstretched so her arms pressed her breasts together like the whore that she was.

“Great,” Jordan said, clearing the screen on the computer hastily. “You take care of her. I’ll just go make the food, if that’s okay.”

“That is more than okay,” his boss said with a wide grin, stepping up to the register for the first time probably ever. Jordan didn’t care who the succubus was flirting with, as long as he didn’t have to deal with Lily. As soon as she had someone else to give her attention to, someone new, she’d all but forgotten that Jordan was even there. From the back room, over the sound of grease popping and patties sizzling, he could hear the two laughing every so often. At least, he thought, maybe the rest of the night wouldn’t be so bad. Somehow, though, he just knew this was going to blow up in his face.

Part 6 – Accidents Happen

Voodoo

About ten years ago, before I left my home state for what would be the first of many adventures, I took my little sister out to a place where I used to hang out all the time when I was younger.  It was a billiards hall named The Spot, and we played some pool there.  One of the things she had always been amazed by was how long my fingernails got without my even trying.  On this particular day, while we were playing pool, one of those long nails (more than a centimeter in length) broke off.  Desperately seeking any sort of object she could keep forever to somehow feel that I wasn’t all the way across the country anymore, she insisted on keeping it.  In case it isn’t already apparent, my family is pretty strange.

Skip forward a few years.  I had done my time in the south and moved back north for a while just to get my feet back on the ground before setting them on the road again.  It was my birthday or Christmas or perhaps no special event at all when she gave me a box.  The box was wooden with a small latch on the front that folded over to lock, and all sides except the bottom had symbols and words burned into the surface delicately.  On the top of the box was a symbol from one of our favorite fantasy book series, and all around the sides were inspirational quotes from authors.

My sister has always been good with crafts, and her gifts are always so well thought out — I couldn’t wait to see what was inside.  When I opened the box, it was stuffed with a thin lacy cloth with a piece of paper sitting on top of it.  Anxious as I was to find out what was under the cloth, I set the note aside for a moment and removed the delicate bundle, unfolding the edges carefully.  My expectation was something fragile, but when the last fold came undone it revealed a small purple doll.  Handcrafted, it had buttons for eyes and was made from what I immediately recognized as cloth from an old shirt of mine.  The hand-stitched seams were solid, almost perfect, and it stared at me with its dark button eyes as if looking into my soul.

Confused, I opened the note.

Enola,  I used a few things that were yours to make this doll.  Inside of it is the fingernail that broke off when we were playing pool that one time.  This doll, from now on, is an extension of you: I hope that you take care of it, the way that I hope you will one day learn to take care of yourself.

Despite the scrawling of good intentions, I was infuriated by this.  I am no stranger to occult practices, and even in all of my poor choices in that field years prior, I had never stooped to voodoo.  This doll, I knew, was made with all of the intentions of a voodoo doll.  Superstitious or not (as my own stance on the topic ebbs and flows depending on my mood), it was not at all a comfort to know that someone had made a voodoo doll of -me-.

I will admit here that I never have fully forgiven this.  Again, whether I believed that it could actually harm me or not, it was the idea more than anything that bothered me.  Of course, I voiced my displeasure to my sister, who defended herself with the long list of reasons why she had made it for me.  She had wanted to make something personal, and wanted to put to use the fingernail that she had kept for so many years (again, yes, we are strange).  More than that, though, the entire idea behind it had been to force me to finally care for something that could potentially effect my own well-being.

Partially out of respect for her and partially out of fear of what might happen if I didn’t care for the thing, I kept the doll.  Wrapped in lacy white cotton and stuffed in a box with the same note that had always been with it, the only change I ever made was the addition of a handful of dried rose petals to prevent the inevitable musty smell that can form when things are left alone for too long.  For the rest of its life, it would sit like that: hidden in this box where nobody could see it or hurt it -or hurt me.

Every time I’ve moved since then -there were at least ten more instances of my packing up boxes and relocating- the box was put inside of another box where all of the little boxes filled with memories were tucked safely away.  Whenever I got to my new “home”, it would be unpacked, set on a shelf, and left alone.  If anyone asked what was in it, I would tell them it was just a doll that someone made for me.  They didn’t need to know more than that.

When I lived in the Centipede Graveyard, the entire basement area that I was renting had flooded.  Before removing my electronics and protecting the things that could easily be destroyed and rendered useless, the first thing that I did was pulled this box out of its storage space, lifted it to somewhere safe, and made sure that it was thoroughly dry before I set to the terrible task of dealing with the rest of the house.  That moment, I think, was a big turning point.  I realized, then, that I really had done my best to take care of it, and that it wasn’t just because of the symbolism.  I thought back to other times when I had taken the doll’s “feelings” and comfort into consideration: its placement on a windowsill during the summer so that the sun could reach it, moving it to the dresser when it started to get cold, keeping it always somewhere visible just in case, ensuring that my cat never messed with it or tried to knock it down, never smoking too close to it for fear of accidentally setting it on fire and…and what?  And it was then that I realized that a much bigger part of me than I had been willing to admit fully believed that, if something bad happened to this doll, it would happen to me.

Three months after coming to this realization (which I was happy to pretend was a conversation that myself and I had never had), I was packing up whatever I could fit into my car and moving across the country again.  My boyfriend, Kyle, was helping me move, and helping me make sense of the process-of-elimination that’s required when you understand that you can’t take everything that you have with you.  Every time I have moved long distance, most of the things that I owned have been left behind.  This process is to determine what things are most important: what has to come with me, what I want to come with me, and what things I can live without.

When he asked about the box, I told him the real story and the meaning behind it.  He, of course, voted to sort it into the optional pile, and only bring it with if I ended up with extra room after all of the non-optional things were packed.  I refused.  This box and its contents had to be with me – that wasn’t an option.  He didn’t understand or agree, and I cannot blame him.  A part of me, even writing this now, feels foolish for being so stubborn about it.  I couldn’t help thinking, though, what might happen if someone else had the doll.  What if they didn’t take care of it?  What would happen to me?  It was no longer about the symbolism that my sister had intended, and was now entirely about the idea that this doll held my livelihood in its hands.

Several times, we had to go back through the non-optional pile and figure out what was going to have to become optional.  There just wasn’t enough room for everything to go, and I had to compromise and re-prioritize all of my belongings.  Each time we came to the box with the doll, we had the same disagreement: it took up too much space and was just going to sit on a shelf, but I couldn’t let it fall in the hands of anyone else.

In the end, the box came with us.  This time, however, it wasn’t tucked neatly into another box and packed with the rest of my things.  In order to fit as much as we possibly could into the car, everything was taken out of boxes and fit wherever we could stuff it in the car.  So I packed this box last, making sure that I left room for it right behind the headrest of the driver’s seat.  There, I could see it in my rear-view mirror while driving, and could know that it was safe.

The trip from my home up north to my new home down south would be two days of driving consistently.  All the while, the box was in my view.  We stopped at a few tolls, and were almost out of the city by the time we hit the last toll.  It was well into the winter night at this point, and the only light was the one inside of the tiny booth the operator stood in.  As I rolled down the window and handed the money to the man in the booth, he looked directly at me and said, “What’s done is done.”

At first, I had no response, and the only thing I could force from my lips was, “Excuse me?”

“What’s done is done,” he repeated, matter-of-factly, but that still didn’t clarify.

“I…I don’t understand,” I replied, becoming increasingly paranoid about what exactly that was supposed to mean.

He nodded at me, and explained, “The quote on the box behind you.  ‘What’s done is done.  William Shakespeare.'”

My heart-rate almost instantly returned to normal.  I laughed nervously.  “Oh, yeah.  It’s a good quote,” I replied, still feeling a bit off but at least no longer freaking out about whether this guy was threatening me or something.  It sounds silly, I know, but in the pitch dark on the outskirts of a city, when a strange man starts spouting off words of wisdom, one tends to assume he is crazy.

“It’s good advice,” he said, eerily expressionless, and handed me my change.  I thanked him and waved goodnight before driving through the toll, still feeling a bit strange about the whole thing.  The rest of the night was without incident, and we stayed the night at my brother’s house – the convenient halfway point between the point of departure and our final destination.

The next day we set out for the final half of our trip, and stopped about two hours in for food and gas.  We had pulled up to a drive through that was just a block from the gas station just off of a 3-lane city street.  After taking the food through the window, I left it rolled down as I made a right hand turn onto the road.  A loud clunk sounded, and immediately I  thought that something had broken in my car.  That would be my luck, after all, and every possible issue that could have made the sound raced through my head as I drove carefully to the gas station.  Nothing felt different, but that didn’t mean something wasn’t wrong.

Something was very wrong, in fact, and I realized it as soon as we pulled into the gas station.  As I glanced into my rear-view mirror, I saw that the box was gone.  Instantly, I understood where the sound had come from, and I asked Kyle to fill up the tank while I went back to get it.  He looked at me like I was crazy, of course, but that wouldn’t dissuade me.  I’d been crazy my whole life, and that was not about to keep me from continuing the rampage of nonsensical decisions that was to thank for most of my adventures.  More than that wild determination, though, there was the sudden feeling like I could die at any moment if someone hit that box.  It was big enough that there was no way someone wouldn’t notice it in the street, but the traffic had been moving so fast that it really was a gamble.

I ran the block back to where I had heard the sound, just outside of the Wendy’s or Taco Bell or whatever cursed place had set this series of events into motion.  There in the middle of the road was the box, broken into pieces.  The doll had been tossed into the middle lane, and the note floated up down with every gust made by the passing tires.  Dried rose petals were dancing scattered across the road, and the white lacy cloth was now covered in thick dark tracks that had turned it almost black.

I knew that I could get it.  There would have to be a pause in traffic at some point, since there was a red light not far back from there.  I could wait until the road was clear and run out to pick up the doll and the note and whatever I could salvage of the rest of it.  The box, at least, had mostly survived, and the doll was still in one piece.  Its cold dark button eyes stared at me, and I was overwhelmed with a feeling of dread.  I knew, suddenly, that I would die if I went out there.  What was even scarier was the intense need I felt to go out anyway, to get hit by a truck right after the doll had been hit by a truck.

Watching the cars, I judged the timing.  I could make it.  This feeling was wrong; I could easily get to the doll.  Even if a car came, it was a clear and sunny day – there was no way they wouldn’t see me and slow down.  I took a step closer to the road.

What’s done is done.

Frozen, I stared into the dolls cold dead eyes as another truck came and ran it over.  It bounced and tossed in the road, farther away from me and farther away from salvation.

What’s done is done.

I stepped back.  Another car whizzed past, driving right over the doll without hitting it.  Its eyes bore into me, begging me to walk out there, to come save it, not to leave behind these memories, to take care of myself like I’d promised, to die here like I was meant to.

What’s done is done.

I turned and walked away.  The truth is, I hadn’t been taking care of myself or the doll:  hiding it away from everyone, lying about what it was and what it meant to me, pretending I was caring for it when really it was just neglected.  That wasn’t taking care of it.  Neither was leaving it in the middle of the road, but how much care could I possibly have for my own life if I was foolish enough to run into traffic?

As I walked back to the car, I was simultaneously heartbroken and relieved.  I heard the pop as another set of tires plowed over the wood in the road – its last call to me.  Don’t you dare walk away.

When I got back to the gas station, Kyle was in the car waiting for me.  His questioning gaze rested on my eyes as I smiled, blinking back tears.  “Well?” he asked, finally.

I shrugged.  “What’s done is done.”

Part 3 – Sugar

Part 0 – Part 1 – Part 2

The cloudless sky and warm sun were a huge improvement from the droll downpour of the night before, which left a mild humid stickiness to the air that Kerin loved. Between the dampness and the heat of the sun beating on her tanned skin and dark clothes, she was actually rather glad now that the witch had sent her on this errand, and had all but forgotten her suspicions as to the woman’s intentions.

Kerin didn’t have a license; she’d never learned to drive. In a city this big, she wasn’t alone in that, but she also detested public transportation. The witch had learned that about her early on, so even little errands like this could take Kerin hours to accomplish because she walked everywhere. The little shop she worked and lived at was a few miles from the nearest grocer, which gave her plenty of time to soak in the sunlight. When she got to the grocery store, Kerin grabbed the cheapest bag of sugar she could find and brought it to the register. Nobody manned the registers, though there was always an attendant on duty in case something went wrong with the machines. She ran the item over the scanner, a little red light shining up and locating the bar-code on the bottom of the item.

‘Please insert your IDAF card,’ the machine prompted in a friendly woman’s voice.
Kerin removed a slim rectangular plastic card from her back pocket. It was about six inches long and one inch wide. She held the card by the white side that had a few numbers and letters imprinted on it, inserting the black magnetic portion into the slot on the front of the machine. The machine made a ticking noise as it accessed the account.

‘Would you like cash back?’ it asked. That, she knew, was a trick question. These machines hadn’t had cash in them for years. Nobody really used cash anymore. She considered saying yes, just for the sake of confrontation. Instead, she reached up to the touchscreen and selected the red NO button.

‘Insufficient funds,’ the machine said in a male’s voice this time, ‘Please select another form of payment.’ A slew of options that were so out of date it made her head spin showed up on the screen. Cash, credit card, debit card, food stamps, different IDAF, money order.
She groaned, pressed different IDAF, pulled the little card out and reinserted it. The machine ticked again a few times, then beeped. ‘Insufficient funds. An operator has been notified. Please select a different payment method.’

Kerin kicked the machine, pressed the different IDAF option on the screen, and tried again. The people with boring jobs were watching her, now, but she didn’t much care if she was making a scene. There was no way her card was out of money. ‘Please contain your anger. A manager will be over to speak with you shortly,’ the machine prompted, screen now showing full red with the word STOP in big bold white letters.

“What seems to be the problem?” a man’s voice asked behind her. It was so unenthusiastic, she half expected to turn and see a robot. It seemed the machines cared more about their customer service than people did, though. The woman wheeled around irritably, seeing nothing at first. When she lowered her eyes, there was a pixie standing before her only as tall as her knees. He had his blond hair slicked back with grease of some sort, and wore the horrible blue polo and khaki pants that everyone else in the building wore.

“This stupid machine won’t take my card,” she snapped. “I know there are funds on it.”
The pixie took a breath, and began to reply to her, his voice too deep to match his shining exterior. Every word sounded pre-rehearsed, “You will need to contact the issuer of your IDAF and resolve it with them, since our systems are based off of the information we receive from their database. I am sorry for the inconvenience, but there’s nothing I can do.” He turned to walk away as if that had solved the problem.

Kerin picked up the bag of sugar and threw it at him, temper getting the best of her as it often did. The heavy bag hit the pixie in the back of the head, and he let out a squeak. “Ow!” he said, wheeling around to face her. His pale skin had pinked, and she noticed that pixies looked kind of like adorable fuming porcelain dolls when they were angry. “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store,” he said, finally finding the intonation in his voice.

She grinned back at him with a shrug. “You’ll need to contact the manufacturer of this sugar and resolve it with them, since your pain levels are based off of the weigh of the item I used as a weapon.”

His cheeks pinked more, and he grabbed a little walky-talky from his waist with shaking hands and shouted into it. “Security! Code …um…there’s a violent woman at register nine.” An inaudible response came from the other end, then the pixie pointed at her and demanded, “Wait here.”

“Why, so you can kick me out?” she laughed, leaning back against the machine. She wasn’t leaving without the sugar, that much was certain. So, she probably shouldn’t have thrown something at the guy, but it wasn’t entirely her fault she had a temper. He was just lucky he was so short, and too much of a hassle to bite. The pixie didn’t respond, just stood there watching her like a little Shih Tzu bouncer, glaring at her angrily which only made his porcelain features puff out like a cabbage patch kid’s face.  Her nostrils flared in irritation, and she couldn’t help but notice that he even smelled adorable.  Like the sour flavor of sweat mixed with lemon pie and candy corn.

In a few moments, a tall man in a simple black t-shirt and jeans came by. The shirt fit too-tight to his incredibly toned muscles, and his long black hair trailed down his chest. At his waist he had a taser, mace, handcuffs, a short neon green stick that she didn’t know the purpose of, and a large ring that held about twenty different keys. While he looked human enough, it stood out to her that he had no scent. It wasn’t just that he didn’t have a distinct scent. If she hadn’t seen him with her own eyes, his smell was so absent that she wouldn’t have even believed he was there. This alone was fascinating, but the intrigue didn’t overpower her need to get what she wanted, no matter how trivial the sugar actually was. The man came straight up to her, and already she could tell he was in no mood for games. She’d make it quick, then.

“Wonderful, so glad you’re here. I asked this guy if I could borrow a few dollars, because your machine is clearly drunk and thinks I have no money. Poor pixie doesn’t make enough to lend me anything, so I hoped you’d be able to. Spare some change?” she asked.

“Shut up,” the guy responded, grabbing her right arm in his left hand and moving toward the door. His grip was tight, but that wasn’t really a problem for Kerin. She slammed a foot on the floor, and the cement beneath her cracked a little. The man stopped, realizing that she wasn’t budging, and looked at the damage to the ground. The anger she expected was instead confusion. His piercing blue eyes glanced at the floor, then up to her, and his brow drew down. “You are really going to make a scene here over a pound of sugar?” he asked.

Kerin shrugged, “Are you?” By now, she was the only person who wasn’t on edge about this whole situation. Everyone was watching, which she was sure was just making it all the more uncomfortable for the employees. While this was sort of an asshole move, what people thought of her was the least of her concerns.  In fact, she got out so infrequently, this was a wonderful change of pace for her.  The witch usually kept her busy enough that she didn’t have much room for getting in trouble or ruining people’s days.  With how much she generally disliked people in general, this was a wonderful opportunity to both accomplish a task, and have a little fun while doing it.  In a city filled with freaks with powers and weird abilities, it really was a shame that nobody cared to use them.

The man seemed to consider her question a moment before his brow drew down. “You’ve assaulted an employee and now broken private property. I’m not just going to give you what you want because you’re acting like a child. Take your business somewhere else,” he said, and tried pulling her again. Though the man clearly had more muscle than she did, Kerin still didn’t budge. Her foot dug a little deeper into the cement floor as he pulled, and she laughed.  “You realize you’re just causing more damage by doing this, right?”

He grunted, then unexpectedly wheeled around. Before Kerin had a chance to register that the man had moved, she realized that she was on her knees on the broken cement floor, hands behind her back and being clasped into handcuffs. The security man’s voice rang behind her irritably, “Well, if you insist on staying, then it’s going to be on my terms, sugar.”

Although surprised at his speed, very surprised, Kerin wasn’t really too impressed. In a world where everyone had a little something special going on, she shouldn’t be surprised that the security detail (even if it was just for a grocery store) would have a little something something on the side. Unfortunately for him, Kerin was not the average freak. After he clasped the cuffs, he moved his hands underneath her arms to lift her up. She pulled her wrists apart, and with almost no effort at all the chain between the cuffs broke. The man lifted her from the ground just as the light clink of the broken link of chain hit the floor. “Thanks for helping me up, love. And they say chivalry is dead,” she joked.

By this point, they’d attracted enough attention that the rest of the security team members had joined in the rest of the crowd. She noted that they were all a lot smaller than this guy, save for one orc who looked like he could bench-press a school bus with all of the kids on it. None of them seemed interested in stepping in, though, and when Kerin made her comment, a few chuckles escaped from the crowd. She turned on her heels to face the guard who thought he had her, looked straight up into his bright blue eyes. He was very attractive, it was a shame that they’d met like this. She reached up a hand, the metal ring still around her wrist, and went to touch his face. “You-”

Her comment was cut off by his tight grip around her wrist. This was not the same strength he’d used on her when trying to get her out the door. His features had grown solemn, not the anger she kept expecting to see. Any considerations she’d entertained earlier about him being just a human were gone as she tried to move her arm and couldn’t. Concern creased her features, and she moved her other hand to grab his, hoping to relieve herself of his grip. His other hand moved and gripped around it before her hand reached his, and he stood holding both of her wrists tighter than she could get out of. The coy confidence she’d held before dissipated, replaced now by a panic. Kerin wasn’t used to encountering people who were stronger than her, and didn’t understand it. At this point, she no longer cared about the sugar. She needed to get away from him.

She pulled away, but his grip didn’t falter. “What the hell?” she exclaimed, but he didn’t reply. His bright blue eyes just stared into her golden ones, holding her wrists as she struggled to free herself. She lifted a leg to kick him, but just as she did one of his swept under her standing leg and moved it out from underneath her. Falling again to her knees, she continued to pull frantically, struggling like an animal to escape the grip of the monstrous human whose strength far outweighed hers, and unable to understand how that was possible. “Fine! Fine I’ll leave, just let me go!”

“Sorry, sugar,” he replied, his voice calm and quiet, the irritation from earlier gone and replaced with an almost monotone one. “I know you wanted to play, but you just changed the game.”

The crowd began to back away, as if they expected something horrible to happen. Kerin knew her overconfidence was going to get her in real trouble one of these days, but she hardly expected it over a bag of sugar. Even though he was stronger than her, though, and probably faster, she wasn’t out of tricks. Almost, but not quite. She just had to get herself thinking clearly again. The man lifted her by her arms, but she let her body hang limp. Strong as he was, she wasn’t going to make this easy for him. He didn’t even bother putting cuffs on her this time. The orc security guy in the crowd moved toward the scene, but the man with blue eyes turned his head to comment as he did,  “If you don’t feel like filing workman’s comp for injuries today, you might want to stay back.”

The guy shrugged, “Didn’t sign up for this job ’cause I thought it’d be easy,” he grumbled and continued moving toward them, presumably to help.

The tall man pulled her by the hands, dragging her across the floor since she refused to move with him. Her hair hung over her face, but she could see through the tiny cracks in some spots, glimpses of scared and confused and irritated faces. Civilians, all of them hoping for something that they didn’t get. Some wanting the underdog to win, because they thrive on the chaos of disorder, some wanting blood to be shed to compensate for their own anger, some upset because their illusion of a perfect normal world had been disturbed once again by someone with a big mouth and a little too much or not enough capability. No matter how this had gone, everyone would have been disappointed. Kerin, however, was the most disappointed of them all. There was no way that this guy was bringing her in over a bag of sugar and a hissy-fit. He had been perfectly content to let her leave, up until he’d stared into her eyes. Did he know? Was that even possible? She wasn’t planning on staying long enough to find out.

The orc followed close behind with a taser-gun aimed at Kerin, in case she tried to start moving again, as the tall man dragged her to a door at the back of the store. The orc lowered his weapon, setting it into a holster at his waist with a subtle click before moving to unlock the door for the pair. She thought to take this chance, but realized that even if she could get the gun, she had no hands to shoot it with. She didn’t know what effect a taser would have on her, if any, but the orc wasn’t really much of a problem aside from that. The real issue was the man whose strength was better than hers. He would have to let go of her sometime.

The door swung open somewhere in her peripherals as her eyes focused on the floor as it moved, counting the tiles from the doorway to wherever they were going next. Her nostrils flared, sniffing for anyone else who was back here. Two others, she could tell, and she lifted her head for a moment to see where they were. The man was dragging her down a hallway lined with doors. She lowered her eyes to count tiles again before anyone had noticed she was looking. The smells were coming from the other side of some of these doors, from two different rooms. Though both smelled cleaned, one of them was definitely an undead of some sort. It was so hard to tell the difference between most of them, from a distance, since they all smelled like rotting corpses of different degrees. Judging by the fact that her stomach wasn’t turning over, she reasoned that the doors here were either incredibly thick, or the undead was a vampire of some sort. Though just as dead as the rest of the undead, vampires tended to smell less rancid than the others. They had the benefit of not rotting away beneath the surface, most of the time. The other smell was incredibly human, and filthy. Probably someone in some kind of holding room for stealing, a hobo or something. She couldn’t blame him, though. It wasn’t easy for pure humans to get by in this city.

The tall man stopped, 32 tiles from the doorway, and the orc unlocked another door. Kerin was dragged inside, then dropped. Her body slumped to the floor as if dead, waiting to be left alone. Her hair draped over her face, hiding the rest of the world from her vision. When she heard the door shut, her nostrils flared, informing her that she had been left alone. Rather, she didn’t smell anyone. Upon lifting her head, though, she was reminded suddenly that the man who brought her here didn’t smell like anything. That was something worth remembering, but she wasn’t exactly used to not being able to see with her nose. Just as she’d lifted her head, she saw him pulling out a chair at a table. The room was all gray, stone with paint over it like a small prison in the back of the grocery store. She glared at him, and he offered the seat to her. “I think we need to talk,” he said calmly, waiting for her to get up.

Kerin pushed herself up on her arms and scooted across the floor to the wall behind her, farthest from the table. She leaned her back against the cold stone wall and glared at him. “I think you need to let me go,” she demanded.

The man shook his head. “You know I can’t do that,” he replied.

Kerin raised a brow. “Can’t? You’re a rent-a-cop for a grocery store. I didn’t steal anything. I said I’d leave, and you said no. You’re holding me against my will. I could have your job for this, you know?” While Kerin knew she wasn’t in the right, here, she wasn’t about to admit that she had been wrong to act like such a child. Her nostrils flared again, searching for a smell that wasn’t there.

“Actually,” he said, finally sitting in the chair that she’d declined, “I’m a little different than the other security here. You see, I work for a partition of the government that’s been called in to Boulder City to look for escaped criminals and things of the sort. Seems there’s been an influx of suspicious characters showing up in all kinds of convenient places, but none of their ‘rent-a-cops’, as you so gracefully put it, were qualified to take them down. To be honest, I thought getting assigned to this store was the biggest waste of my time ever.”

Kerin sat silently, her heart starting to race. Anything he accused her of, she was going to deny until she could get out of here. She’d have to leave this city, start over somewhere else, but she would rather die than turn herself in and go back to that place. “That’s fascinating,” she replied, a bite to her words, “So you thought, since you had to waste your time, you would just go ahead and waste mine, too?”

The man let a small smile dance on the corner of his thin lips. “If I remember correctly, you’re the one who got yourself into this mess. I would think that, being a criminal, you would be a little more subtle to avoid getting caught. Causing scenes in public places isn’t really smart, unless you really think you’re that unstoppable.” He leaned back in his chair and observed her a moment, and she felt like an animal in a cage being watched for someone’s amusement.  This wasn’t the first time she’d felt that way, and it made ever muscle in her body tighten.

“Listen, I don’t know who you think you are, or who you think I am, but I’m just local counter help at a corner store who wanted sugar and lost my temper.”

He nodded. “And I am just a rent-a-cop, doing my job, as far as the people out there are concerned. In this room, though,” he said, patting his hand on the table, “We are what we are. So. Who are you?”

“None of your business.”

“Where did you come from?”

She feigned a gasp, “What a coincidence!  That is also none of your business.”

He sighed. “This is going to go much easier for you if you just an-”

“Oh geeze, now you are using lines straight out of movies. Please. Just, spare me the cliches and try being original, or I’m going to get really bored really fast.”

“I know this might come as a shock to you, Sugar, but your entertainment is not my top priority.”

She grinned knowingly back at him, the tips of her canine teeth glinting in the florescent light. “Perhaps it should be,” she said, laughing a little afterwards before leaning her head against the wall. “Now that I’ve answered all of your questions-”

“But you didn’t ans-”

“I have a couple of my own. Like, what makes you think I’m anything more than your common trouble maker?”

He didn’t respond.

“Oh, so you’re just trying to satisfy your own boredom, just like me, hm? Tired of playing security guard when you’re way overqualified for this?”

There was silence from him for a moment, and a satisfied grin coated Kerin’s lips. She peered at him with her golden orbs tauntingly, knowing she was right. The man replied coldly, monotone seriousness in his voice again that made her skin crawl, “Is that what you’re doing, then? Satisfying your boredom because you’re tired of being so overqualified for the life that you pretend is yours? Tell me, Sugar, when was the last time you ate?”

Her smile disappeared. His blue eyes were piercing her own again, and everything in her screamed to look away, but she couldn’t. “This morning,” she lied, her voice quiet.

“I’m going to ask you again,” he said, leaning forward in the chair, “And this time, you’re going to answer as if I already know the truth.”

She scoffed, “Yeah, like that’s going to-”

“If you don’t make this easy, it will get very unpleasant.  I don’t want that any more than you do,” he said, his eyes narrowing. He didn’t seem to be threatening her, even though it sounded like he was. He seemed more like he was looking for something, staring hard into her eyes and trying to understand what was looking back at him. It made her feel naked, and scared.

Her nostrils flared again, and she could pick up the scent of the undead coming closer to the room. Her eyes flicked toward the door as an excuse to break eye contact with him, and it worked. She fixed them there, and forced a smile and a laugh. “No wonder they stuck you in a super market. You must have messed something up pretty bad to get this gig, and now you’re trying too hard to bag yourself some big fish so you can get back in good with your bosses.” She waved a hand dismissively. “Eggs, toast, and a small bowl of cereal. That was my breakfast this morning. Don’t believe me, give it a few hours. It’ll pass, and you can examine the waste yourself.”

He sighed. “I was really hoping you would cooperate.” The man stood, and walked to the door just as a light tap rang out from the other side. The undead. Kerin’s muscles tightened. The man opened the door, revealing the tall thin vampire on the other side, a man in a slim black suit and wiry blond hair. The creature’s red eyes glanced at Kerin, and he placed a hand over his nose to hide the smell. She grinned, knowing that she likely smelled as unappetizing to him as he did to her. The man who had trapped her here whispered something to the undead, and the undead leaned in to whisper something back, his eyes never leaving Kerin. The taller man looked over his shoulder to her, an expression of realization on his face.

“It’s you,” he said quietly, more to himself than anything else, then closed the door between himself and the vampire.

“What do you-” she started, but the man was in front of her before she finished her sentence, his hand cupping over her face as she reached up to stop him. Instead, as her vision went black, her body went limp on the floor.

Part 4 – Witchcraft

Part 2 – Granting Wishes

Part 0 – Part 1

Well, everything certainly had fallen apart again. Kerin stood in the pouring rain, black hair glued to her tattooed face as the falling water worked its way over every inch of her dark-clad body before reaching the ground and sinking through the curb grate at her feet and into the rotten sewer. To be honest, she wished she could do the same.  Turn into a puddle and just crawl away from this awful mess she found herself in.

In the middle of the street, moonlight glinting off of its matted fur, was the angriest werewolf she’d ever seen. She couldn’t say she blamed him for his rage, but that didn’t fix the predicament she was in. The beast’s arm was wrapped in a thick gauze that had stretched visibly with his transformation. As the rain ran over it, soaking the white wrap, it started to turn pink from the still-bleeding wound beneath it.

“Look at what you’ve done to me!” the creature growled angrily, though she could hear the sadness in his voice. The worst part was, she didn’t even feel bad. In fact, this was pretty damn annoying. “Look at what you’ve made me doooo!” The last syllable turned into a long, pained howl, and she couldn’t help but roll her eyes at him.

“Oh please, you did this to yourself,” she said nonchalantly, trying to pretend that she wasn’t at least a little afraid of the monster that stood in front of her. Frankly, werewolves were pretty terrifying because they were always in some kind of emotional distress, and that was never an easy situation to deal with.  That, you know, and the giant teeth and claws and incredibly strength. “We had a deal, and it’s time for you to uphold your end. I’m sorry it’s not how you wanted it, but it’s not like I’m coming out with a dozen roses and a box of chocolates for my effort, either, you know.”

The creature roared again, at least managing to avoid the cheesy howl this time. She always hated dealing with werewolves, especially at the end of the contract. As if the victim wasn’t obnoxious enough, now he just had to have been given super powers and a terribly loud voice to whine about the misfortune that he’d signed up for in the first place.
“The contract clearly states that, after six months of service, your time is up.  If during that time you break the contract, it becomes void. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it-”

“No! I’ll sign another one, then. I’ll work for another ten years if I have to, just please, turn me back.”

The soaking wet tan woman turned her eyes up to the moon and away from the monster in front of her daringly. She had no intentions of giving him what he wanted, but it couldn’t hurt to look like she was at least considering it. The whining dog went silent as she stared at the orb in the sky as if thinking really hard. “It’s a full moon now, so there’s nothing I can do tonight. But, I’ll tell you what,” she said, turning her golden eyes back down to look at the creature. What a pathetic beast he was, and the whole street smelled like wet dog. She wanted this over with. As if the discomfort of standing in the rain talking to a giant emotional puppy wasn’t bad enough, she knew that the noise must have attracted attention. People were probably watching through their windows, whispering about it all, and this was going to be very bad for business if he didn’t calm down quickly. “Come talk to me tomorrow at the shop, alright? You won’t be back to normal, obviously, but I’ll make an exception at the door this time. Okay, Nate?”

He grabbed at the wound on his wrist as is breathing calmed, nodding solemnly with a quiet whimper. His body shuddered, fur whipping about and sending water spraying every direction. Kerin took the splash to the face like a champ, closing her eyes but not turning her head against it. Not that it would do any good anyway since she was already soaked. “Thank you,” he said with a smile, as if she’d just given him another chance. In truth, she was just going to have to turn him away tomorrow anyway, but at least it was solved for now. At least she could get out of this rain. The beast moved in to hug her and she held out a hand to stop him. The motion was ignored, however, and two muscled arms covered in soaking wet fur that felt like it was made of wires wrapped around her comparatively-tiny body and squeezed. Any mere human would have been crushed, but lucky for her she had tougher skin than most. Much tougher.

When the stinky werewolf released her, he scurried off into an alley. She heard a crash, a cat scream, some sort of verbal cursing, and then the street was silent but for the sound of the rain falling. What a pain in the ass, she thought, and immediately set her feet to walking home.

Thankfully, the streets were usually pretty quiet at night in Boulder City. At least, unless you were unfortunate enough to run into someone. Mostly, the only people who came out at night were the nocturnal sorts, and that meant either party animals or just plain animals in general. Of course, you had your werewolves and vampires, whether she liked it or not they were a part of nature just like everything else. But they weren’t really much of a problem. Vampires, especially, tended toward the clubs where they could get their freak on. There was always some human around who had a fetish for that sort of thing, willing to give up their blood and lust to the first thing to flash a shiny pair of fangs their way. Yeah, they weren’t really a problem, anymore.  The older ones kept to themselves, anyway, and they were the only real threats. The ghosts were what had most people hiding in their houses, and they weren’t your Casper-the-Friendly types. They were all harmless, technically, but some of them were…well…unsettling to say the least.

For example, eight years ago there was this dwarf who was sitting on his balcony minding his own business, smoking a pipe and having a beer. For whatever reason, his wife came through the door behind him. She said something to him, he grumbled, and the two started fighting. Then, he climbed up on the rail of the balcony, six stories up, and jumped to his death. From what Kerin could figure, he’d probably had quite enough of the old bag’s shit, and at that moment figured that jumping off his balcony was better than listening to her nag another minute. Since then, though, he haunts the place. Not in the “I’m gonna eat your heart” kind of way, or anything like that. His ghost sits on that balcony every wednesday night, smoking a pipe and drinking a beer. He gets up and walks to the railing, climbs on top of it, and stands there looking down for a good ten minutes before he jumps off the edge again.

So, it was stuff like that keeping people in their homes at night, mostly. When you’ve got the spirits of the dead lingering around killing themselves all over the place or watching you with jealous eyes, it becomes cozier to stay indoors.

Of course, there were some actual threats of being out at night, besides just the creepy stuff. Every city has them: the thugs and gangsters and all around jerks. Nocturnal types, those who are comfortable in the dark not because it’s in their blood, but because they’ve got something to hide. In this city, being blood-thirsty is a genetic trait, and you’d have to be an idiot to think you were some flavor of special just because you eat people. You can’t help it if you’re a carnivore, and nobody is going to judge you any more than they’d judge a giant for being tall. There were countless clinics and blood banks and butchers and so forth scattered around the city, and most (if not all) of the carnivorous types shopped for their favorite kind of meats in those ways.  No, it was the ones who decide to screw up people’s days that really made the streets a cold place to be at night, and that’s not reserved for ghosts and ghouls and succubi and “monsters”.

Of all the weird shit in this city, though, Kerin’s job was probably the strangest. She worked in a small shop owned by a local witch, a short woman draped in black who never left the building. She’d come across this job by accident one day, the same way all their customers came around. The Witch (the only name Kerin knew her by) owned a wish shop, a slim building just on the outskirts of the city. Most people didn’t even know it was there because they couldn’t see it. Kerin didn’t really understand how all that worked: if it was the Witch controlling when you could see it, or some sort of spell or something. Magic wasn’t really up her alley, despite her now having made quite the lifestyle out of it. The shop was invisible to most everyone, except those who were drawn to it, or those who had already been there, or had reason to be there, or whatever. That’s what the Witch said, anyway. People who showed up always wanted something, something they couldn’t get just by trying a little harder.

The building was pressed between two other buildings that each stood alone, which led Kerin to believe that anyone who didn’t see it just saw a dark alley or something there. It was a dark grey, and stood four stories high to match the height of the neighboring buildings. Most places here had shops on the lower level and living quarters upstairs, and this building was no different. What was different was that this was the only place in town Kerin knew of that didn’t have locks on the doors. When she’d first moved into the apartments upstairs, this had been something she really wasn’t okay with. Somehow, though, the magic made sure that you could only get in if you were welcomed, or something like that, because nobody had ever gotten into her apartment, or broken into the shop. Her pessimism declared that it was only a matter of time, but she’d been here three years and still had no issues.

Kerin opened the front door to the shop, soaking wet. She wished there was some sort of spell on the place that could remove the water, and figured that if she was a witch she would have made sure to enchant the doorway with something that made people’s clothes comfortable and clean when they came in. It couldn’t be that hard, right? No manner of wishing she was dry would make it so, though. A soft voice greeted her in the dim light of the first floor. “I could grant that wish, if you want.”

She waved a hand dismissively at the disembodied voice. “I’m still working off the last favor you did for me, so I’ll take a pass this time.”

The voice laughed a little, and the dim light in the room grew brighter, illuminating the mostly empty shop. Shelves decorated the walls, empty save for a few items collected from what Kerin could only assume were unwitting customers. There was a small table with no chairs set just a few steps ahead of her, pressed against the wall as if waiting for someone to come in with heavy hands, but nothing ever ended up on it. The farthest side of the room from the door was covered in blankets and pillows, and in the mess of purple and blue fabrics sat the Witch, dressed in black and cloaked from head to toe, her face hidden beneath the shadow of a cowl. Kerin had seen her face, once, but she couldn’t remember anything about her features. Another spell, probably, but she’d figured out by now not to question any of it. Questions were only answered with riddles, which just formed more questions, and frankly she didn’t have the patience for talking to witches.

The soft voice spoke again, “So, the wolf was undone.” It wasn’t a question.

Kerin ran her fingers through her soaking wet hair, drops of water pouring from it like rain. “Yeah, he made a big scene in the streets, so I told him to come back tomorrow. I’ll let you deal with him.”

“Did he attempt to bargain?”

“Something like that. He wants to sign another contract. I don’t know, I just didn’t feel like standing in the rain any more so it’s the only thing I could think of.”

“What was his undoing?” she asked calmly.

Kerin shrugged. “Couldn’t say. I found him that way, and he was just an ugly mess. Mad, too. Hopefully, he’ll be calmer tomorrow.”

“I am sorry that it didn’t work out.”

Her words sounded genuine, but Kerin couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, I’m sure you are. Listen, if you don’t need anything else from me tonight, I’m gonna get to bed. It’s been a trying day.”

The woman extended her hand to the doorway that led to the hall between the shop and the stairs. “Rest well for tomorrow. You will need it.”

Kerin waved over her shoulder as she moved toward through the door. Everything that woman said made her uneasy, like somehow there was a threat or a promise hidden in every word. Her wet combat boots banged loudly on the wooden steps as she hurried up the three flights to the top floor attic that she stayed in. ‘Rented’ wouldn’t be the appropriate term, really. Kerin had originally happened across this place like everyone else: on accident. She imagined it was weirder for everyone else who had lived in this city for years and suddenly seen a shop where there had always been nothing, but the first day Kerin had gotten into town her feet had led her to this building. A part of her wished she’d never found this city, but then again she was technically living for free (by monetary standards, anyway).

At the top of the tight stairway was a door, half the size of a human and probably originally intended for dwarves or goblins or something small like that. She opened it to pitch blackness, and crawled up the remaining few steps into her attic apartment. The room filled with light the moment her feet touched the floor, something she’d found unsettling for the first year or so she’d been here, but was now learning to be grateful for the little things even if she didn’t understand them. The Witch’s explanation for the lighting had been simply that “The house knows”, which didn’t do anything to make her feel better about it. She might as well have said “the walls have ears and the floors have eyes”, because somehow that would have actually been less creepy.

Kerin had been living very modestly: a pile of blankets in the far corner of the attic being all that she had for a bed. It was actually incredibly comfortable, considering the blankets were piled on a hard wood floor. In the corner opposite the ‘bed’ was a safe, the dial on the front sticking halfway off of the door and bent in a way that made it look like a giant metal hand had squeezed it into submission. Which, in fact, was almost exactly what had happened the first time Kerin forgot her combination. She could be a woman of infinite patience in some situations, but little things like that weren’t something she had time for. If there was a faster way in, she was going to take it, and only three months after purchasing the safe she’d forgotten the combination and broken the lock off with her bare hands. After that, she’d hired a dwarf to come up and see what he could do to fix the thing, but the man’s only response was that she clearly had a pest problem she’d need to take care of first. Once it was determined that Kerin shouldn’t be allowed to have to remember a combination, the dwarf set to installing a different kind of lock. Melded to each side of the safe were long bars on hinges that wrapped around the top and bottom of the door. Where the bars from each side met the other, there was a metal loop. Through that metal loop was a chain that linked the two bars together, and the middle of the chain was held tight with a thick master lock that took a key.

As soon as she got upstairs, Kerin set to checking the lock and the bars and chain to make sure they hadn’t been tampered with. Once satisfied that all was how she’d left it, she stripped off her wet clothes and laid them out on the floor. She didn’t really have any other furniture to hang them from, so that would have to do. Moving to a pile of black cloth in another corner, she grabbed up solid black slacks, underwear, and a tank top and dressed herself again before falling into the makeshift bed with a sigh. She laid with her eyes wide open staring at the ceiling.  The light that the house had provided dimmed until it was dark, and she fell asleep with her eyes still open.

Kerin slept through the entire night without any disturbances, which was unusual. Her paranoia would often wake her up.  Sleeping with one’s eyes open, the slightest movement would stir her from her rest. Nightmares often haunted her as well, a thing she told nobody about.The witch could probably get rid of them, if she wished it, but Kerin wasn’t really interested in being any more in debt to the woman than she already was. Thankfully, this night had been good to her, and she remembered the eerie words of the witch the night before. “Sleep well, you’re going to need it,” or something like that. So, despite her wonderful sleep and feeling well-rested, Kerin walked down the stairs that morning with dread in her heart, only to find that the Witch wasn’t even there.

Normally, when one gets to work and finds that their boss isn’t there, one expects to feel relieved. There was, actually, a part of her that was relieved, but more than anything she was suddenly scared. The woman had never not been there before. In fact, Kerin wasn’t even sure that she was able to leave that room until now. She’d only seen the Witch leave her little perch of pillows one time, but never the room itself. Still, she was gone, and Kerin wasn’t really sure what to do. Trying to convince herself that this wasn’t something that she needed to worry about, the woman set to her daily tasks. She turned the open sign around (though why they even had that when nobody could see the place was beyond her), dusted the shop, and checked the schedule to see if there were any appointments. She hoped there weren’t any too soon, if the witch was going to be gone long. While Kerin might have helped tend the shop and attend to their customers, she really couldn’t do anything on her own in this place. She wasn’t magical, and didn’t have the slightest idea why anyone was walking into that place to begin with.

When Kerin had first come upon this shop, she didn’t even know why she was going in. At the time, she had been looking for apartments, and this was the last place she would have wanted to live, just by looking at the outside of the building. Maybe she’d been cooped up in CCI labs for too long, or maybe it really was the magic luring her in. The witch insisted that she had a wish that needed to be granted, and Kerin had told her that she’d just gotten her wish granted, so no thanks. The witch, though, just laughed at her, then said that she obviously didn’t know what her wish was.  She then offered that she was free to live in the attic, free of charge, and to work off her debt in the shop for as long as she stayed.

Kerin should have found it odd at the time that the woman knew exactly what she was looking for, but instead just found relief in the fact that her search was over so quickly. Frankly, she didn’t know much about renting from people, and didn’t really have any skills for the working world. While not as useless as a human, Kerin was at a drastic disadvantage: she had absolutely no idea how this world worked. But, that was then. Now, she’d figured it all out, being a quick study, but still couldn’t bring herself to leave this place. She didn’t get attached to things easily, but it just felt…it just felt like nothing good would ever happen if she left. Perhaps it was part of the spell on this place; maybe the witch didn’t want her to leave. Or, maybe, Kerin really did have a wish, she just didn’t know what it was yet.

It was never good to have too much time to think, and Kerin found her mind going places she normally wouldn’t let it wander as she waited for something, anything, to happen. There were no appointments for the next week, which was no surprise, so the only person she expected to come around was Nate. As if on queue, at the moment she remembered he was supposed to be showing up, she saw the werewolf’s visage through the window. He was looking around in front of the store, a confused and panicked expression on his face. Kerin quickly lept to her feet and went to the door, not wanting him to get all worked up again over nothing. As soon as the door opened, he noticed the shop. Odd, she thought, that he’d been here before but wasn’t able to see it this time. “You’re late,” she lied.

He looked to her with an excited expression, “Oh, there you are!” The monster rushed toward the door and inside as if he expected the building to disappear if he didn’t hurry. , The monster had to crouch his hulking body to get through the doorway.  Once inside, he stood in front of the door ringing his hands together nervously before deciding that having them at his side would be best. Kerin pretended not to notice, moving toward the small table that nobody ever used.

“You look like you’ve calmed down some,” she mused, putting the table between them. There weren’t any chairs, but she liked feeling like she was at a counter. Having an object between herself and the overly-clingy werewolf was really the true comfort in it.

Nate nodded in response, licking his lips with his thick black tongue before talking. “Yes, I…I’m sorry about last night. It was…well, I wasn’t really myself. You know how it goes. I uh…I understand, you know, if you don’t want to…to give me another chance.”

Kerin sighed. “Why don’t you first tell me what went wrong? I couldn’t get anything out of you yesterday.”

Nodding again, more excitedly this time, the man was doing a great job of keeping his high energy under control. She could see how hard it was for him to act so human right now. It was almost admirable, but more than a little pathetic. “Well, it’s like this, you see, I…well when I came here with my wish, I don’t think I understood the rules. That…that witch, she said I wanted Ashley to love me. And…I do…or…I did. But when that witch made me human, and you started to teach me how to…control myself…so that…so that she would be able to see me as a man and not a monster…well…I…” He scratched his head nervously, an offhanded motion at first that after a moment turned into a vigorous itching. Kerin cleared her throat, and his hand dropped quickly to his side again. He smiled, but it really just looked more like he was threatening her with his teeth.

“You what, Nate?” she asked, having a hard time hiding her impatience.

“I…well sometimes you spend a lot of time with a person, and the things you want change. And…well you start to feel things, and I spent so much time with you learning how to act like a human that I…”  He looked at her with puppy dog eyes, and she couldn’t take the beating around the bush any longer.

“You fell in love with me,” she answered for him, and he nodded slowly with a whine. He opened his mouth as if he was going to explain further, but she really couldn’t stand listening to him talk anymore. She held up a finger, and he snapped his jaw closed, watching her expectantly. “You changed back because your wish didn’t apply anymore. The spell was broken because it was made under the pretense that you wanted Ashley to love you. If that’s not what you want anymore, then obviously we can’t help you get it.”

He nodded anxiously. “I know, exactly. So…I need to talk to the witch. I need to know what she can do to make it so that you can love me.”

Kerin just stared at him a moment, and her tanned face started to turn red. At first, Nate thought she was blushing, but then he saw the crease in her brow, her nostrils flare, and her lips curl up. Her hands were in fists at her sides just thinking about the fact that, if the witch were here, she might very well try and grant that wish. She thought about keeping her mouth shut, calmly telling him no, leading him out, and hoping he still couldn’t see the building. When she opened her mouth to do just that, though, a slew of smutty language flew from her lips instead. Somewhere amongst the cursing, she’d managed to use complete sentences. “You are pathetic, you know that? Why not just try to find something that works as it is. What are you going to do, come back here and keep on wishing every time a girl isn’t good enough for you? You know, if you really loved her, you would have kept on loving her. And if you really loved me, then you would leave me the hell alone, because if you love someone you want them to be happy, and the only thing in the whole world that would make me happy right now is you NOT being my problem anymore!”

She stepped out from behind the table to move toward him, though even she didn’t know why, and the beast of a man flinched. He pulled away slightly, as though she were going to attack him (which she wasn’t, but it was still a good move on his part), and Kerin realized how loud she was screaming. That realization caused her to lower her voice, though only slightly. He was still here. Why was he still here? “This was a business transaction, Nate,” she said between gritted teeth. “Just because you don’t want what you were given anymore doesn’t mean you don’t still owe for services rendered,” she continued, stepping toward him.

The wolf shook his head. “Owe?”

Kerin nodded, repeating the words she’d heard the witch say hundreds of times before. If she wasn’t here to make ends meet, Kerin would have to, and damn did it feel good to be the one to do it this time. “There’s balance in the universe, and it has to be upheld. There’s a constant give and take, and if you take something, you must give something of equal value. What the witch did for you was big: she changed your entire body to make you something you weren’t, so that you could have something you weren’t supposed to have. So, in exchange, I’m going to take something that you are supposed to have, make you the real monster that you-”

“That’s enough,” sounded the soft voice from behind Kerin. Her hair whipped around her face as she turned to look at the pile of pillows and blankets, only to find the witch sitting there. Before she had the chance to find out what that was all about, the witch spoke again. “Nathaniel Draper,” she addressed the werewolf in the doorway. The beast whined in response. “Your wish was for love. Did you receive it?”

The wolf thought for a moment, then shook his head. “I…I don’t understand.”

“You wished for the woman to love you. Does she?”

He looked out the doorway, as if considering running, then turned his eyes back to the witch. “I…don’t know. It…it doesn’t matter anymore.”

The witch lifted her head slightly, and even through the shadows Kerin could see a smile on her lips. “Oh, but it does.”

The tiny bell on the door rang as a young woman walked through, her expression bewildered. Nate gasped and backed up to the wall, pressing himself against it. “Oh, I’m sorry. The sign said you were open,” the woman spoke softly, ringing her hands in front of her nervously. “I-I’m sorry if I interrupted anything.”

The witch replied, “Not at all, my dear. Your timing is perfect. What is your wish?”

“My wish?” the girl asked, then looked at the faces all around the room. She didn’t seem to recognize anyone, then looked at the witch. “I don’t understand. I was just passing by and I-”

Kerin sniffed irritably. “Listen, lady, we don’t have all day. You’ve got a wish, everyone who comes here does. If you don’t tell her, she’s going to get it out of you anyway, so you might as well just give it up.”

“Oh,” she replied quietly, putting her hands over her mouth. “I-I see. Well, I can’t just tell complete strangers my secrets.”

The witch spoke again, her smile still lingering beneath the shadow. “You have no secrets in this room, dear.”

“Would you stop being cryptic and just tell her what she wishes for and grant it so we can get on with this ordeal?” Kerin asked, although it was more of a demand.

The witch glared at her. She couldn’t see her eyes, or most of her face, but she could feel the gaze on her skin. Or maybe that’s just what she expected. After a few moments, the witch responded. “Your heart is aching for someone, someone who does not know. But you are worried that he hides things from you, so you have not pursued anything with him. Recently, though, he has disappeared, and now you worry that his secret has caused him harm in some way. You wish to find him, to know his secret, so that you can help him with whatever it is.”

The room went silent, and Kerin turned to the girl who held a wide-eyed expression. Kerin grinned at her, “Told ya.”

The girl stammered, “How did you-”

“Don’t bother asking,” Kerin warned, and the girl nodded.

“Yes, yes it’s all true,” she said, moving toward the witch with haste. She seemed very passionate about the topic all of a sudden, and knelt on the floor in front of her like a child begging. “Please, if you know anything, I just want to know if he’s okay.”

The witch shook her head. “That is not your wish, child. What is your true wish. Tell me.”

The girl took a breath, and nodded. “I wish that Nate was here, that I could see him again and have the chance to…to show him that I love him.”

Kerin busted out laughing, slapping her hands over her mouth so hard that she could feel her fingernails digging into the skin. She hadn’t meant to, but she couldn’t help herself. The young girl looked at her with a disappointed expression, and Kerin waved a hand to try and tell her to continue as she tried to block the sound with her palms.

“Your wish is my command,” the witch said, and motioned toward the werewolf at the front of the store. The girl’s eyes followed her hand, to rest upon Nate who by now was hiding his face in the corner.

“I don’t understand,” the girl said quietly, before a look of realization came over her face. “N…Nate?” she asked.

The wolf whined and shook his head, but the girl got to her feet. “This…this is what you were hiding from me. This is what you really are? You’re…not human?”

The wolf whined again, covering his face with one of his gigantic paws. The girl ran to him and wrapped her arms around him tight. He removed his hand from his face, looking down at her in surprise. “You…you don’t care?” he asked, licking his lips again with his long black tongue.

She shook her head against his fur, her head only coming up to the middle of his chest. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” she said, crying.

Kerin had finally managed to stop her laughter, mostly because the scene was making her feel a little sick. She looked back to the witch. “Well, that answers that question,” she chuckled, referring to whether Nate had gotten what he’d wished for or not.

The witch nodded. “Nathaniel,” she said, and the man turned his eyes up to her with a smile. “Your fee is as follows: to keep one love, and forget another. Is this the love you choose?”

He didn’t even look at Kerin as he nodded excitedly. “Yes, yes, thank you so much.”

The witch nodded. “Then it will be done. Thank you for your business.”

Nate and the girl left, and Kerin stared incredulously at the witch. “What the hell kind of retribution is that?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“He didn’t lose anything. How is that payment?”

“But he did lose something. To lose love, no matter how small, is a great sacrifice, one not made lightly.”

“What does that even mean? He didn’t lose love.”

“He has given up all memory of you, and all of the feelings attached. The moment he left this store, you no longer existed to him. That is a love lost, a part of him that will never be replaced, an empty hole in his memories. Hopefully, the love that he left with will be enough to make up for the hole. If it is true, it will be.”

Kerin rolled her eyes. “Geeze, I didn’t take you for a romantic.”

The witch smiled. “You are welcome, by the way.”

She raised a brow. “Me? Why am I welcome?”

The shrouded woman chuckled slightly in response, but didn’t reply. Kerin narrowed her eyes, but wasn’t about to try and understand her. “Where did you go, anyway? Where were you all day?”

“I was here.”

“No you weren’t.”

The witch nodded. “Just because you do not see something, does not mean it does not exist.”

“No, but when I don’t see something, I assume it isn’t present.”

“Just because you cannot see something does not mean it is not there.”

She narrowed her eyes at the woman again. “We’re not talking about you anymore, are we?”

The witch smiled. “We are talking about many things, now. Did you rest well last night?”

Kerin hesitated, then replied. “Yeah, really well actually. Why?”

“Looking out for your well-being is all. I am glad to hear it. Could you do me a favor? I seem to be out of sugar. Could you run to the store and get some?”

“Why don’t you go?”

“If I went, then what would you do?”

“Good point,” Kerin resigned. She didn’t believe for a second that the old bag actually needed sugar. In fact, there was no kitchen even on this floor. Maybe she had one on one of the other two floors, but Kerin hadn’t ever seen anything but doors up those stairs. Still, there wasn’t anything else for her to do for now, not with that case closed, so she grabbed a light jacket and walked out into the mid-day sun to run her errand.

Part 3 – Sugar

Part 1 – Curiosity Underground

If you haven’t already, please read Part 0 – Introduction before reading this part.

Tony Price was one of the curious types who had taken one of the slips of paper with a date and location on it with the intent to show up at one of those meetings.  An investigative journalist for the Boulder City Times, he’d gotten approved to write an article about the Underground only so that he could justify spending time down there sating his own curiosity.  Perhaps the best part of his job was being able to do interesting things and label it as investigative journalism.  So long as he actually produced an article, his boss would see it as work instead of what it usually was: Tony wasting time chasing leads to sate his own curiosity.

Tony was an ogre, standing at a muscle-bound six foot ten, with grayish-green skin and pale yellow eyes that sat just below a mane of wiry black hair.  Unlike both of his parents, his weight was pure muscle. While most of his kin maintained their strength even through engorging themselves with all the food they could find, Tony was blessed not to have the horrifyingly round shape that the rest of his family members donned with such pride.
Journalism, as his parents had told him, was really not his calling, but he was the type to always look for a challenge. When he was growing up, he had excelled at sports, a few different methods of martial arts (before kindly being asked to leave because he was making everyone else look bad), and had been offered a number of scholarships by the end of high school for varying colleges under the pretense that he’d play sports for them: any sports, they didn’t care, so long as he was on the team.

The ogre rejected every one of the schools, and instead applied for something that would pose to be more of a challenge for him: writing. He was never the brightest kid in class, but always the strongest, and was tired of everything coming so easily to him all the time. After being turned down for a number of different universities, Tony finally got into a community college. With no small amount of effort, he passed all of his classes, scared the Editor in Chief of Boulder City Times into give him a job, and has been writing for them ever since. Most days, the Editor doesn’t regret his “decision” to hire the man, though there have been instances of trouble.

This would likely be one of those instances, and Tony knew it as soon as he’d pulled that little tab off of the piece of paper. This gathering would be a challenge, something that nobody had written about, and if anyone had then nobody had cared. He didn’t really know what to expect to find at this meeting, but one way or another it was going to get published. In truth, he expected to find something so utterly ridiculous that he’d be able to write an article to shut down this operation once and for all, but there was a shred of hope that it would be, well, more than it seemed.

10:00AM on Wednesdays were when the little papers said that they met, and Tony stood before a warehouse building in the manufacturing district of the city. All around were tall fences and long warehouses, dark clouds of smoke overhead blocking out the sun, and the overwhelming smell of burning rubber. Tony’s waves and waves of long, curly black hair were tied back into three knots on the back of his head to keep them off of his face. He’d learned years ago that shaving his beard was pointless, but he did manage to keep it short enough to tame into a small knot on his chin. Aside from his naturally brutish look, the ogre wore a tight white t-shirt and bluejeans.   He may have been a professional, but that didn’t stop him from doing his best not to look the part.

His assistant, a blond little elf woman by the name of Lina, pointed at the door with a pale slender finger. “This is the location, 1432 Wayside. It looks…not good,” she said, tilting her head. “Are you sure about this?”

The man chuckled, a sort of roar in his chest that shook up his throat and into a laugh. “Of course not. If I was sure, I wouldn’t need to be here.”

She rolled her bright green eyes and straightened her formal brown skirt. “I really hope it’s nicer on the inside. I think I overdressed.”

Lina was wearing a three-piece suit, with a skirt instead of slacks, and even had a short light green tie on. Her long blond hair was tied back into a tight ponytail, with but a few stray strands that couldn’t be tamed sticking out around her long pointed ears. She wore thin metal-framed glasses that made her look like a sexy librarian, and Tony was finding it hard not to look at her instead of where they were going as they walked toward the building.

The gravel path that led them toward the building ended at a large metal door that looked like it was designed for trucks to go through. Tony hit the door as gently as he could manage with his fist a few times to knock, which made such a loud noise that he could hear the echo of it inside the building from where he stood. Lina cleared her throat, and he looked to her. Standing a few feet away from him, she was pointing at a piece of paper stuck to the door. The paper had big black letters on it that said PLEASE DO NOT KNOCK – USE SIDE DOOR. Tony gave an exaggerated shrug, and his assistant sighed with a bit of a smile. He wasn’t always the quickest to figure things out, which was part of why he’d hired her in the first place.

The two walked around the side of the building and found a normal-sized door, there. Well, normal for most people. Lina opened it for him, and Tony had to crouch a bit to get through it, turning sideways a little so his shoulders didn’t rub up against the walls. Inside, he found arrows on the ground made out of red tape leading to the back of the building. Lina stayed close behind him as they followed the directions. The arrows led them to a door, but before he opened it, he felt her tiny hand grip around his wrist. Tony looked to her quizzically, and could see she was actually really nervous about this.
“D…did you bring any weapons or anything? I mean, just in case?”

Tony put a big hand on top of her head and rubbed it, messing up her entire hair in a failed attempt at a gesture of comforting. “Silly Lina. I am a weapon,” he said with a flat-toothed grin before opening the door.

As the ogre and elf walked through the door, half-expecting to find crazed cultists in black robes chanting to some made-up god to free them from their imagined captivity, they were greeted by the familiar smell of coffee. Lina’s tiny hands gripped tight to a binder filled with papers, holding it to her chest as though she intended to hide behind it if things got ugly.  There was no doubt in the ogre’s mind that she would use the thing as a weapon if it came down to it.

Tony entered the room and took in the faces: about two dozen human-looking folks standing around sipping on small Styrofoam cups and chatting among themselves. Near the back of the room that was much smaller than the one they’d come from but still looked to have initially been intended as some form of storage, wood pallets were stacked on top of each other to form a stage that stood about three feet off the ground. Atop the makeshift stage was a fold-out gray plastic table with papers of different colors piled into neat stacks across it. A woman approached the stage, climbed atop, and touched each of the stacks, before picking a pastel-green shaded sheet of paper.

There were about thirty chairs spread in front of the stage, all made of the same pale-gray shade of plastic that the fold-out tables were. Nobody was sitting in any of them, yet. It was clear that the group had mainly attracted humans, or at least people who looked human enough. Tony saw a dwarf in the corner, talking with a woman, and there was a goblin at the table where the coffee and some pastries were set out, greeting people with a disgustingly wide grin. Nobody even seemed to notice the two walk through the door, so Tony took it upon himself to get some coffee. He wasn’t really a fan of the stuff, but maybe it would help him stay awake through what looked like it might prove to be a very boring event.

The goblin was just saying goodbye to a young man when the ogre walked up to his table. The little creature smiled up at him with a welcoming wave. “New faces!” it said, its voice an unsettling hiss. “I’m Roger, would you like a treat?”

Tony looked at the snacks on the table and reached to grab one. A tiny hand slapped his giant one from somewhere to his left, and he saw Lina glaring at him disapprovingly. “Darling, you’re supposed to be watching your weight, remember,” she said, raising a brow.

The ogre’s features scrunched as he looked at her confused. “What the hell are you talking about?” he asked, and reached out again to get one of the danishes that was staring at him just waiting to be inhaled like the naughty little sugar bit that it was.

She slapped his hand again, then laughed nervously, grabbing his gigantic ogre paw between her two tiny hands, as if that was enough to stop him. “Oh, you’re so funny. Remember what the doctor said, though, too many sweets and you won’t stay on your feet,” she said in a sing-song kind of voice that he’d never heard her put on before.

The goblin pitched in. “Oh, a diabetic, I’m so sorry to hear that. In that case, maybe you should pass on these. I’ll try to remember that for next time, though, and bring some food without sugar in it.”

“Oh, it’s no problem, really,” Lina replied with another laugh. She leaned her head against Tony’s muscular arm, and for just a moment he was certain that this was some sort of horrible nightmare. Not that Lina wasn’t an attractive woman, but any woman who got between him and food lost all of her appeal. “My husband just likes to think that he is super man, isn’t that right, honey?”

“Uh,” he started, not having the creative initiative to know how to fit into this conversation anymore. “Yeah, what she said.”

Lina tapped his arm, as if to say, ‘good boy, keep up the good work’, then chimed again, “Shall we take our seats?”

Tony shook his head. “You go ahead, I’m going to get some coffee first. No sugar, though,” he added with a grin.  Lina’s grip tightened and she looked at him with wide eyes, begging him to just come with her and sit down without actually saying so. The ogre wasn’t about to just let her pull him into hiding, though. What the hell kind of things was he supposed to find out with his ass planted in a chair the whole time? She realized that he wasn’t going to give on this, and smiled her fake smile again with a nod and hurried off to find a seat.

“Trouble in paradise?” the goblin asked in a hushed voice, and Tony chuckled.

“Anything worth having is worth fighting with, right?” he chuckled in reply.

“Right you are,” the goblin said, oblivious to the change the ogre had made to the cliche.

Tony grabbed one of the Styrofoam cups and set to making his coffee, talking to the little man as he did. “So, Roger, was it? When is this whole thing supposed to kick off?”

“Well, it was supposed to start a few minutes ago, but the leaders of the meeting have been delayed. I’m sure they’ll let us know why when they get here. Cream?”

“No thanks. Does that kind of thing happen often?”

“Almost never. This is only the second time I’ve seen one of these meetings delayed, and the first time was only because the building we were supposed to be meeting in sort of collapsed.”

“Collapsed? How does that even happen?”

The thing lowered its voice a little, “There are a lot of powerful people who don’t want us meeting like this. I’ll let you figure out how it collapsed.”

Tony raised his brow and his coffee cup at the same time, hiding the smile he couldn’t keep from his lips behind the steaming styrofoam cup. Much to his surprise, the coffee was delicious. It had a sort of vanilla flavor to it, he thought. When he lowered the cup, he’d managed to get his smile under control. “I’m a little new to all these…conspiracy things. I just saw the flier and thought it seemed interesting. Who exactly is against these meetings?”

“CCI, of course. They’re threatened by the knowledge that spreads in this place, and the numbers we’ve started to grow.”

Tony wasn’t going to even address that their numbers seemed to amount to less than most high school football teams, “Why would CCI want you shut down?”

“You’re about to find out.”

The goblin nodded toward the stage, and Tony looked to see that two men were standing there, now, over the table with the papers on it. One was tall with long black hair that reached past his shoulders, and the other was a much shorter fellow. Beneath the table, Tony could see that the shorter man had the legs of a goat. He assumed that, under his baseball cap and mess of bright red hair, there would be a pair of horns as well. Satyrs weren’t exactly uncommon, though he hadn’t expected to see one here. The satyr shuffled papers on the table while the taller man stared directly at the ogre. His eyes were a piercing blue, and Tony immediately associated the color with the lights on his computer. Not that he thought the guy was a robot or anything (although that wasn’t entirely out of the question), but the eyes seemed to actually glow in the room. He wore a long dark grey trench-coat and tight black clothes beneath it. Other than his eyes, he looked like he could be perfectly human.

“Who are those guys?” Tony asked, noticing as he spoke that his own voice had gotten quieter. The tall man was still staring directly at him.

“The satyr is George. He’s the speaker for the meetings. The other one is Israel. He’s sort of the brains behind the whole operation.”

“Is he human?”

“I’m pretty sure he is,” said the goblin, but even Tony couldn’t miss the doubt in the creature’s voice.

The ogre looked back to the smiling creature, and managed a smile of his own. “Well, I guess I better find my seat. Thanks for the coffee,” he said, raising the cup as if toasting with the air.

Roger waved at him excitedly, but seemed to have diverted most of his attention to the stage. It was eerie: when a goblin was focused, they seemed almost hypnotized. The creature’s beedy eyes were fixated on the front of the room, and even when he looked away for a moment, it was as if there were an invisible string constantly tugging his attention back up there. Tony made his way to where Lina had sat down, and noticed as soon as he got there that she was chewing her fingers. When he took the seat next to her, she slapped her hands down into her lap, hoping he wouldn’t notice. “That guy,” she said quietly, “He’s been staring at you since he walked in the room.”

“Yeah, I know. He’s probably jealous to see someone taller than him in here. I hope he’s intimidated,” he joked.

Lina slapped his arm, and not in a playful manner. “We should go. He’s making me uncomfortable.”

“Relax, Lina. What’s he going to do, throw hot coffee in your face?”

“I don’t know. I just-”

Before she could finish, the satyr on stage spoke up over the hum of voices in the room. His voice was nasally, but surprisingly loud for his size. “Excuse me, everyone, I apologize for the wait, but we’re ready to start now, so I’d appreciate it if you could all get to your seats.”

The people scattered about the room made their way to their seats, closing out their conversations, and within a few moments the room was organized into the fold-up chairs in front of the pallet-stage. “Thank you so much for your patience. Alright,” he said, glancing over his thick black-rimmed glasses at the paper in his hands. “First order of business. I want to be completely honest with you about the reason for our delay. A contact at the Boulder City Times, a trusted friend and member of our inner circle, contacted me just as I was leaving to come here today. To make a long story short, we’ve received confirmation that there is in fact an escaped creation from CCI living illegally within our city.”

Hushed whispers broke out within the crowd, people turning to address their seated neighbors about the subject, even though nobody in the room probably knew what they were talking about. The satyr raised a hand to quiet them down, and raised his voice as he continued speaking. It didn’t take long for people to listen instead of talk. “We’re still gathering information on the identity of this person. As you can imagine, CCI hasn’t exactly been forthcoming with that information. However, we suspect that it has been released here intentionally, and that it has a mission, though we don’t know what that is. It’s confirmed that the subject appears to be a human female, in her mid-20s, and has been hiding somewhere in the city for the past 3 years.”

Whispers broke out again, but the satyr yelled to speak over them, and again the voices quieted. “As you can imagine, the last thing we need is for panic to break out. We just want to keep you all informed, because honesty and openness are what we thrive on here, unlike the truth-sucking joy-thieves at CCI.”

Tony lipped the words ‘truth-sucking joy-thieves’, just to see if it was as fun to say as he imagined it would have to be in order to justify ever using those words together. It was a little, but not really. It took everything in him not to shake his head. This was rather ridiculous, and he was beginning to regret ever coming. Beside him, Lina was writing notes as fast as she could, her eyes fixed on the satyr yet her hand working quickly as though it had its own thought processes. The tall man stood ominously just behind the satyr, like some sort of body guard, but at least he wasn’t staring at Tony anymore. He seemed to be scanning the room, but didn’t make any move aside from crossing his arms at one point.

“If any of you have reason to suspect that you have encountered this thing before, it is imperative that you not treat it any differently, continue behaving as you have so it doesn’t suspect that you know something, and bring it to my attention or the attention of one of the inner circle. We will investigate thoroughly, but we don’t want anyone to get hurt because someone overreacted to this situation.” He cleared his throat, moving the paper he had been looking at to the back of the stack in his hands.

“Second order of business. The white cat that has been pooping inside the warehouse has been given a home, thanks to Andy and his-”

Lina’s hand suddenly shot into the air, and her once-timid voice penetrated the satyr’s speech. “Question,” she demanded, irritation evident in her voice. The woman could fake her way through any conversation unless she was irritated.

The satyr stared for a moment, and then smiled. “Oh, I see we have some new faces. Questions are reserved for the end of the meeting. If you can hold them until then, I’d love to address any concerns you have.”

“I can’t hold them until the end,” she replied, continuing with little regard for manners. The tall man’s eyes were on Tony again, and the ogre shifted uncomfortably in his seat (mostly because the chairs were really not suited for a giant muscular butt to sit in for too long). “What evidence do you have to support your claim that CCI is releasing experiments into the city.”

The satyr looked at the tall man, who took his eyes off of Tony long enough to give the small man a shake of his head before fixing on the ogre again. The satyr shuffled back to his first page. “I’m not at liberty to discuss exactly what it is that we’ve been shown, since it could compromise my contact’s privacy. But it’s no secret that CCI does plenty of human testing and modifications, and have been known in the past to attempt to create-”

“I didn’t ask what you were claiming they were doing. I asked what evidence you have to support your claims. If you have proof to back up this story, there’s no reason you shouldn’t make that information public. It would shatter CCI as a company, so you really have nothing to lose.”

“The truth is always buried behind walls of lies.”

“But you said your contact works for the Boulder City Times. If you could get this person to publish an article with this information in it, there’s no way to cover that up. Once something is printed and people see it, then the truth will be out there. Anything CCI does afterwards will just be obvious fumbling excuses, but ultimately it would achieve your goals.”

“I’m sorry, who exactly are you?” the satyr asked, now peering over his black rims at the woman with  new scrutiny.

Lina ignored the question. Tony was glad, for a change, that it wasn’t him that was under her scope. “If there’s a potentially dangerous experiment running rampant in the streets and you have the power to bring that to light, then by not taking action you are just as guilty as the powers who put that card into play. You are to blame for anything that happens from today forward, if you choose not to come forth with this information. Do you really want that kind of blood on your hands?”

The tall man stepped forward, and the satyr seemed to realize that his turn to speak was well over. Though the man responded to Lina, he kept his eyes fixed on the ogre. Racist, probably, was the only thing that Tony could reason. He hadn’t done anything but drink a little coffee since he got here. The man spoke, his deep voice booming effortlessly through the room. “It’s not an experiment, it’s a weapon. It’s not a human that was modified, it’s a creation, an abomination. Bringing the story to light would only discredit the person who wrote the article, and you know it, just as I know that whatever evidence I give you you’ll find some way to say it’s not true. Without enough to put CCI under for good, this contact would only be sacrificing their job if they wrote that article now.”

“Then why even bring it up?” Lina asked. She clearly wasn’t as put off by him anymore as Tony was, and apparently all of her nervousness had been replaced with a feminine fury that he had no intentions of getting in the way of. “Why not at least show evidence to the people here, so that we can determine for ourselves what we think is true instead of forcing your interpretations of the situation down our throats?”

The man was silent, and Tony buried his face in his gigantic green hands. When the one called Israel finally spoke again, it was far more calm than before. “What did you expect to find here, elf?”

“A righteous act of underground movement intent on saving the city from itself, as advertised, or a rough bunch of hooligans hell-bent on anarchy.”

“You’ll find neither of those here.”

“You think?” she said sarcastically, clearly still irritated, then stood up and started walking out. Her heels clicked and clacked loudly on the floor as she headed toward the door. Someone in the crowd of people shouted, “She’s blind just like the rest of them.”
Tony sighed and stood, knowing he couldn’t leave Lina out there by herself. She may have had a little kick to her words when she was angry, but the girl had nothing in terms of self-defense, and who knew what kind of weirdos were hanging around this place. Murmurs emerged from the crowd as he followed her to the door, and just as he reached it the tall man’s voice rang out again.

“Tell your assistant that I’d be more than willing to let her publish the story, if she’s willing to risk her job for it.”

The ogre looked over his shoulder, but the dark man had turned around, and the satyr had taken his post again. The hoofed man spoke up to the room as Tony walked through the door, and the last words he heard were, “-so, the cat has a home, now-“.

Lina had gotten outside far quicker than he thought her little legs could carry her. She was out the front door before he had even made it out of the meeting room. When he caught up to her, she was leaning against the large warehouse door with the sign on it that Tony had knocked on earlier. Her one arm clutched around the binder, holding it tight to her chest, and in her other hand between two slim pale fingers was pressed a long, thin cigarette. The elf exhaled a cloud of smoke bigger than her head, and it lingered in the humid afternoon air.

“Well,” he said to her, “That was exciting.”

“Sorry,” she said quietly, “I just don’t understand how people can be so dumb and follow anything someone says just because they use words like ‘contact’ and ‘reason to believe’. It’s stupid. Those poor people in there are just following blindly the lies of some dumb group that is probably leeching their money on donations to fund private projects that have nothing to do with what everyone thinks they’re funding.”

“That would make one hell of a story,” he mused, reaching out for the cigarette. She handed it to him, probably assuming he’d want a drag. Neither of them smoked, but they were both known to do so whenever Lina got really upset. Tony didn’t really get that mad, but her stress always got him on edge, and smokes took the edge off. Instead, he threw it on the ground, stepping it out with his shoe. “They might be right, though,” he said, knowing he’d likely regret playing devil’s advocate with Lina.

She scoffed, shaking her head and looking up to the sky. Her bright green eyes lit up as the sun hit them. “Why did we even come here?”

“Two parts insatiable curiosity, one part hope, I guess,” he shrugged.

The woman giggled. “That was almost poetic, but I think you missed the point. I mean, you don’t even write political crap like this. You write opinion articles on sports and movies and events like that.”

“I was hoping for a challenge. You know me. I take it you don’t like serious?”

Her button nose scrunched a little in thought, as she seemed to search for words somewhere up there in the clouds. “I don’t like questioning my reality. Even when it’s stuff like this, so far-fetched that you just know someone is reaching and would have done better as a novelist. It still makes me wonder…there’s too much we don’t know. What if it’s true?”

“You wanna come back next week?”

She scoffed and pushed off the wall, seeming to force her eyes off of the peacefulness of the sky. “Why would I want to do that?”

“To find out the truth, obviously,” he said, starting to walk back down the long stretch of gravel to where she’d parked her car.

Lina followed, just a few steps behind. “I don’t think we’ll learn anything here. We’re just going to find more questions, but these people don’t want to give us answers, even if they had them. I just…I just wish I knew the truth. I hate thinking about it so much.”

“I wish I knew, too,” he said, not really sure if she was saying she was interested in the topic or wasn’t. To Tony, Lina was a giant mystery. Predictable in some cases, but her mind was clearly a lot more complicated than his was.

The two got back to Lina’s car. She always drove, because it wasn’t exactly cheap to find a car that an ogre could fit behind the wheel of comfortably. There were all sorts of modifications that had to be made for his size, and those alone usually cost more than the car itself did. Yet another reason why he’d hired an assistant. When the two were seated comfortably inside, Lina started the car, then sat there for a second. She turned her head to face Tony, and said, “Let’s promise to just stick to the normal stuff, okay? This kind of crap really messes with my head and gets me thinking, and I really would just like things to be simple, alright?”

He hesitated, not sure if he should ask what she meant, or just go with it. He decided on the latter, though, since it seemed like the safest bet. “Sure, I guess this was a waste of time, anyway.”

“Yeah,” she said, but she sounded disappointed as she put the car in reverse and pulled away from the building.

Part 2 – Granting Wishes

Part 0 – Introduction

I’m going to do my best to relay these stories the way they were told to me, with a little creative observation strewn here and there.  Consider me the narrator: a faceless entity in all of this.  I might be one of the characters, I might just be reporting, or I might not even exist at all.  The way things played out, though, beginning to end, someone has to know.

As of my writing this, we live in a world where humans and “monsters” coexist.  My accountant is a giant fly, my mailman is a werewolf, and my favorite actor is an elf.  It might seem like chaos to you, and I’m sure it did to us at one point.  This kind of thing is the norm, these days.  Maybe that’ll change.  I don’t really know.  I’m just here to tell you what is, what has been, and what happened.

I collected these stories from, well let’s just call them acquaintances.  The truth is, I don’t know how much of it is skewed by perspective.  I just know that, right now, everyone in this city is still trying to sort out what just happened, and maybe this will help.  Maybe it’ll just make me feel better about it all.  Who knows?

Boulder City isn’t an especially bad nor especially good city. Every city in the world has their weirdos and their crossbreeds, some with higher crime rates than others. Boulder City, though, was (at the time) perhaps a little above average insofar as nice places to live, only due to Aiden Traux and the many companies that he owned and ran out of this very city. It was no secret that all of the tiny companies with the name Traux written on them were just subsidiaries for CyberCorps Industries, a global monster of invention and creation, ranging from space travel to cybernetic enhancement to foods that adapt to your personal preferences. If it was something someone had thought of at some point at some time, Traux had capitalized on it.

When the boom of non-humans swept the planet, the veil being torn between this dimension and another where humans didn’t even exist, Aiden’s father Maxwell was the first to speak up in favor of living peacefully with this new world. Overnight, the city we lived in suddenly had doubled its population as freaks appeared on the streets calling this their home. The only sign that this truly was our earth, and not some other dimension, was Traux Towers. For all the mutants and monsters that our world absorbed, none of the newcomers recognized the towers. They could tell you the name of any street and how to get anywhere, but Traux Towers were exclusive to this world.  So we knew, without a doubt, that this version was our version.  We were the originals, and these other things were just unwelcome guests.

At first, it was chaotic. Suicides, homicides, threats of genocides, pesticides, and all out civil wars started. Gun nuts flashed their weapons and protected their rights to kill anyone who wasn’t like them, religious nuts burned their neighbors for being witches and demons (which, to be fair, they actually were), exorcisms had a grand coming back, and riots filled the streets.  The chaos only lasted for two days, when Maxwell Traux took it upon himself to be a beacon of hope in an otherwise torn world.

People didn’t much like the idea of a military state. There had always been conspiracy theorists who knew it would happen, but damn if it wasn’t the only way to keep us from destroying ourselves and all of those people who came here against their will. Traux set in motion, without government approval (though he easily got it afterwards, along with a few peace awards and probably a giant ice cream cake with strippers or something), an act that allowed the hiring of individuals nonhuman, and the firing of anyone who wasn’t okay with that plan. The fine print in this act gave Traux the right to do unlimited testing on those non-humans (with proper compensation for their time), and also allowed him to genetically alter any human so that they could better ‘fit in’ with the current times. Of course, he didn’t reveal this part of his plan until just before he died, and his son Aiden took over the company, giving a new flavor to CCI, by new blood for new blood.

Most humans have a little something on the side, nowadays. It’s never genetic, though it’s common knowledge that it usually changes the taste of their blood. Some of them want implants, some want ‘super powers’, and some just want to look weird, but pretty much everyone just takes what they can get. It’s not a cheap process, and the results are not always exactly what they expect them to be. But, in this day and age, humans are having a hard time keeping up without some sort of alteration, what with trolls taking all of their construction jobs, dwarves taking over the engineering departments, goblins running the waste disposal businesses, and the list goes on.  Even hookers have been replaced by insatiable succubi, and (unless you’ve found someone with a human fetish) it’s impossible to compete with a demon made for sex.

Most humans can’t even make enough money to feed themselves, let alone live in anything bigger than a cardboard box. So, suffice it to say, CCI has made trillions of dollars off of people who have nothing, to give them something so that they can finally be back on par with the rest of the world, so that they can make enough money to maybe one day pay off CCI for all the work they had done. But hey, if that endless loop comes with the satisfaction of being able to at least work for a living and maybe get a date every once in a while, it’s worth every penny.

The only thing that CCI hasn’t made a fortune off of (because they can’t figure out how to do it) is people who aren’t human who wish that they were. For a company that’s been doing human testing far longer than they can legally admit, they’ve only had about half a century to toy with the other races, and so far there is no way that they can find to change them. The assumption is that, since they’re from another reality, our sciences don’t apply to them. The counter argument to this, then, is why our alcohol and other drugs effect them just the same.

DNA, though, is a whole other ballgame, and CCI hasn’t been able to find a way to change the DNA of anything that wasn’t originally from here. It had taken this long to learn as little as they still knew about DNA compared to what there was to discover, and now entirely new factors -impossible factors- had been thrown into the mix. Even scientists were beginning to simply shrug and resign that it must just be magic.  With only one generation passed, even cross-species mating isn’t entirely understood. Of course, you can’t mate a goblin and a harpy and get a human or anything like that, but oddly enough most of the new ‘people’ had tended toward their own species up until the time they came to this world. It was like melding dimensions with this other world somehow meant their rules no longer applied.  Now, you get a Giant hooking up with a werewolf, and I just shudder to think what their children would look like.

Before recent events unfolded, you didn’t find the Humanist types in big cities anymore. Lots of them had gone to jail for taking extreme action against people who never did anything to them, while the rest just decided they wanted nothing to do with it all and left. There are colonies all around the world where ‘freaks’ aren’t welcome, and more often than not they’re content to leave the Humanists alone. People like that can’t survive in cities, especially not these days where every corner has some new surprise or skin color or deformity.

Of course, with any major change, corporation, or social upheaval, there comes the other side. The other side isn’t always strictly against what the main side is doing, but they’re usually some flavor of not-all-for-it with a little of we-could-do-it-better sprinkled on top. In this case, you have the aptly-named Underground. The Underground are mostly humans -people without jobs or hopes for a future- who have nothing better to do than complain about the way the system works and ‘sticking it to the man’. However, amidst the whining and the fist bumping and hormonal imbalances, there are inevitably always people who actually know what they’re talking about and why.

Residing in the literal underground (a sub-city area where the subways used to run), somewhere mixed up with lowlifes and nobodies there’s a group of folks that call themselves Ego. Fliers can be found all over the underground for Ego, and in a few places in the actual city. The fliers don cartoon characterizations of the Id (depicted in the flier as a chimera with the head of a lion, body of a horse, a snake for a tail, and tattered eagle’s wings ) and Super-Ego (the CCI logo given arms and legs and a great big sword) fighting to the death. The Ego in the background is shown as a pair of angelic wings, and below the picture is this text:

A secret war wages between what you are and what you’re told to be. Embrace Ego, find balance in this world where your instincts are being suffocated by the corporate hammer of CyberCorps Industries.

At the bottom of each flier there are a bunch of little serrated tabs of paper, the front having EGO on it in big red letters and a phone number with an out-of-town area code just beneath it. On the back of each tab was a date and time, and a physical address for a location on the streets somewhere. As corny as it all might seem, it was a very good marketing strategy, because most people took a tab just to remember the hilarious cartoon on the front, but many actually called and showed up for meetings just because their curiosity couldn’t avoid it anymore.

Outside of all the political junk, though, most of us live like normal people.  We wake up, eat whatever our digestive systems demand, go to work, come home, eat again, rinse repeat.  Some people party at nights or on weekends.  Some people have odd lines of work, while the majority of the population is made up of tax-abiding citizens, human or otherwise.  It took us a long time to get to this point, and even longer to actually accept it.  We share this world, this city, for better or for worse.

Part 1 – Curiosity Underground

Part 2 – Granting Wishes

Part 3 – Sugar

Part 4 – Witchcraft

Part 5 – The Frying Fish

Part 6 – Accidents Happen

My Centipede Graveyard

11043131_1057782717572367_868355833880592436_nI awoke slapping my leg in a frenzy, trying desperately to kill whatever had pinched or bitten or stung or otherwise assaulted me as I slept.  My eyes were greeted by the pitch-blackness that my rented basement had to offer, and even my hand on my thigh held no answers to where the pain had come from.  Mau shifted and let out a sigh, brushing her feline tail against my face as if to say, “It’s okay, mom, just go back to sleep.”

I couldn’t sleep, though.  To be honest, I hadn’t slept (not really) for weeks.  Living underground so close to a lake, my days and nights were spent surrounded by insects and arachnids and everything in between.  Bugs.  Bugs that bugged me so much that I would rather be at work fixing a buggy program than at home doing anything.  I considered getting a cot set up in the warehouse, tucked behind a pallet of bug spray.  I would be safe there.

Trying to convince myself there was nothing in my bed, I lay my head back down and resigned that the cat was right.  It was okay.  I just needed to go back to sleep.  A tickle on my neck contradicted this lie, and I sprung out of the bed immediately, swatting at my neck and hair and chest and arms like a crazy person.  I felt like a crazy person.  Maybe I was.  Even so, I would be a crazy person who killed that damn spider or ant or centipede or nothing.

Even in the darkness, I knew my surroundings.  I consistently managed to avoid ever bashing my leg against the computer table that was set up in front of my bed, always escaping the self-imposed enclosure through the narrow path at the foot of the bed.  Rushing to the door, I slapped my free hand against the wall as the other continued its frantic search for the intruder.  Blindly, I lifted the hand, knowing that it had to hit a light-switch sometime, and was assaulted with a bright light before my brain even registered the feel of the switch on my palm.

Mau sat on the floor staring up at me, her gold-green eyes narrowed as her tail twitched irritably.  Her face said, “Okay, I’m up, and I’m here for you,” but her tail said, “This shit again, really?”

centipede-246402_960_720centipede-562036_960_720The carpet in front of my bedroom door was littered with  the corpses of centipedes.  Most people don’t know, but there are two types that live in Northern Illinois: the long curlicue ones that die in a pretty spiral of decorative legs and hard black shell, and the thick terrifying ones with legs like a spider’s and an orange and black striped body that, to me, seems straight out of a nightmare.  The former, thankfully, was what I dealt with most often, and I had been living with them by the swarms.  There was no door or barrier they couldn’t get through, though they tended to at least avoid my bed and clothes and didn’t bite or sting (unlike the aforementioned nightmare-centipedes, which went wherever they wanted whenever they wanted and stung anything that moved).

I had, admittedly, stopped cleaning up their bodies.  It gets to a point when you’re vacuuming twice a day that you start to wonder if leaving their corpses will deter their kin from swarming anymore.  Like a crunchy centipede graveyard that I would carefully step over each day in a desperate attempt to pretend they weren’t there, their bodies would serve as a warning to the other brainless insects to please please please just leave me alone.  I wondered, at times, how terrifying a monster I would seem to the bugs, if only their thoughts ran so deep.  This graveyard of murder and symbol of death left there only out of my own fear that these harmless things might never leave me alone.  Was that really how I lived my life?

I lifted the forgiving leg of my thin pajamas and checked my thigh for marks.  A small red dot in exactly the place where the pain had started sent a shiver through my whole body.  Something was in my bed.  Something was in my pants.  I shook both legs, and my cat stood to back up, away from the crazy person and whatever might come flying out of my pants.  Nothing did.  I ran a hand through my hair, still tingling from the feeling that at any moment I could find a spider or an ant or a centipede boldly going where no bug had gone before.  Again.

I couldn’t stay there anymore.  I told myself this every day.  Everyone did.  It’s so easy to tell someone or to tell yourself, “You need to move,” but that statement never takes into account the cost, the effort, the time, the motivation…all of which I was lacking.  I had plenty of reasons to leave.  The swarm – yes, they swarmed – of centipedes from the moment I approached my basement door was not reason enough.  The spiders that multiplied and coated every subtle curve on my car, every door handle, every mirror, every windshield wiper, were not enough to make me go.  The crazy lady who rented to me, her fence-hopping floor-pissing constantly-barking Shih Tzu (who had turned both the yard and half of my basement into a shit-zoo) was not enough to make me leave.

What could motivate me, if not for all of that?

Some time after this incident, this repeat offense on my sleep and my sanity, it rained while I was at work.  That summer had been wet and miserable in more ways than one, but this rain was a torrential downpour the likes of which I’d only seen during monsoon season in the time I spent in Arizona.  I drove home from work that night knowing there would be water on the floor, on my boxes, and probably on the towels I would want to use to clean it all up.  I had no idea, no idea at all, the extent of the damage I would walk into.

I took the three steps down to the sliding glass door that opened into my basement.  At least, I told myself, there were no bugs.  At the bottom of those steps where the centipedes normally swarmed, there was a useless drain that was clogged with corpses and leaves and sticks.  The water came up to the top of the last step, well above the bottom of the sliding glass door.  I planned my entrance carefully in the dark, holding my flashlight between my teeth as I dug through the mud and grass in the yard to seek anything suitable to brush away the debris.

My hands gripped instinctively around the first stick they found, but it wasn’t long or sturdy enough to do much more than poke at the water.  After three failures, I found one that would suit my purposes, and quickly set to brushing away whatever blocked the drain.  I wish I could say I was calm through all of this, but (my temper being what it is) I was angry.  Angry that I lived with someone who did nothing for a living and didn’t even have the courtesy to make sure that her property was in order.  Angry that I had worked twelve hour shifts for days only to come home and spend another hour trying to get through my door.  Angry that I hadn’t just left the first moment that I realized that this place was a nightmare.

The stick was great, really it was: I don’t want to belittle its usefulness or its effort in this story.  It was a trooper and it did its best, but ultimately it made no difference in the end.  For every clump of blockage I was able to move, three more were sucked into its place by the motion of the water trying desperately to get out of my way.  There was no safe way inside, and I knew this.  I stepped over the gap, placing my shoe on the edge of the plastic door-frame and hoping to whatever god existed that I didn’t break the damn thing with my weight.  Holding my breath, I slid the door open quickly, jumping inside of the basement before slamming it closed behind me.  The walls shook, but I had made it inside.  Into my pitch-black prison of bugs and spiders and dog-shit and…

And water.

So much water.

It didn’t matter that I’d opened the door and managed to only let a small flood in.

It didn’t matter that I’d spent the last hour trying to clear out the path.

It didn’t matter that I’d been smart enough to place towels in between the rooms the last time it flooded, in case it happened again.

None of that mattered as I heard the sloshing of my already-wet feet as I hurried across the room to the light switch.  From what little control I had over the flashlight in my mouth, I could already see (but refused to believe) the mess I had walked into.  I was afraid to turn the light on.  Despite the knowledge that I could very well have electrocuted myself just by flipping the switch, the real fear was in seeing the damage that was done.  What was worse was that it was still raining.

I could just go to bed.  No manner of flooding could have possibly gotten that far into the basement, all the way to my room, all the way up the bed.  I could just sleep, and not deal with it, pretend I didn’t notice, and just be miserable in the morning.  I was so tired.  The night before had been another night of bugs and disappointed glares from my cat, and I just wanted to sleep and pretend that none of this was happening.

I turned on the light.

The good news (though it didn’t feel so good at the time) is that I didn’t die.  No wave of electricity came to set me free from the mess that now assaulted all of my senses.  As the light came on, the only thing I felt was the last shred of hope leaving.

Water.

So much water.

My centipede graveyard floated around me, little black spirals of bone and legs twisting in the water as I disturbed their peaceful rest with every step.  The towels at the rooms’ edges were just wet messes of cloth beneath the water, and I rushed to the door of my room to check on Mau.  Never mind my electronics.  Never mind my computers and the consoles and the television.  Never mind my clothes.  Never mind the bed.  I should have known by the fact that she didn’t rush to the glass door when she heard my car pull up that something was wrong, and now I panicked as I stood at the cracked door that led to even more darkness, wondering if I even wanted to know.

I won’t mess with your feelings here, or lead you to believe anything happened to her.  That cat is my world, my daughter, and my best friend.  She’s smarter than most of the people I know, and obviously smarter than I.  When I walked into the carpeted room that had now gone a darker shade of ugly tan, she sat atop my dresser with a wide-eyed expression that said, “Oh my god, mom, make it stop.”  I rushed over to her, hearing the squish of every step I took into the room, and for the first and only time ever she jumped into my arms.  I pet her to comfort her, trying not to show her how much I was freaking out as I looked around the room and started making a mental list of all of the things I needed to do.

With all of the assumptions I’d made that night, there was one that I was right about: the top of the bed was dry.  Only the top.  I placed her down there, and immediately set to unplugging everything and picking up the things off the floor that were at the top of my priorities: the soaking wet towels, my computers, my consoles.  The room looked so dry, but every squishy step I took reminded me that it was only getting wetter the longer the sea of corpses in the rest of the basement existed.

I stuffed the corpse-coated towels in the drier, then retrieved the hanging towels from the bathroom.  Somehow, even those were wet, and I touched a hand to the wall to find that it, too, was soaked.  I hurried to the bedroom closet, all the while Mau watching me with eyes that begged me to calm down, but I couldn’t anymore.  I pulled anything dry and cotton from the hangers, tearing off spider-webs that had been formed during my hours at work that day, and tossed the clothes into the water at the doorway, soaking up whatever I could with whatever I could for however long it would last.

Everything that went down on the floor got stuffed into the drier when a load was done, and everything in the drier immediately went down on the floor.  I had bunched up a large rug in front of the doorway to at least slow the advance of more water, and even that got replaced with dry towels after a while.  This cycle continued for hours, way past my bedtime, until all of the water in the basement had been soaked up save for a few stray puddles that I just couldn’t get myself to consider a threat compared to the task that awaited me in the carpeted room.

Once the hard floors were dry, and there was (I thought) no more water going into my bedroom, I started on trying to dry the carpet with the same process.  It was futile.  It didn’t take me long to realize this, and the moment I did, I stopped.  I stopped trying to clean it, stopped trying to make it better, stopped trying to fix something that couldn’t be fixed.  I stopped making excuses for the lady upstairs, for the bugs that kept me from sleeping, for the water that came through the walls and the door and the ceiling.  I stopped everything.  I took off my shoes on the dry-ish floor outside of my bedroom doorway and let my toes squish and crunch on the centipede-corpse-covered-water-soaked carpet as I went to my bed.  I brushed the black spirals of legs and exoskeleton off of my feet, squashed a spider that was walking across my pillow, and lay down to sleep as if everything were alright.

I want to make something clear at this point, because this is very important: I did not give up early.  No matter how much more I had tried to dry that carpet, it wouldn’t have made a difference.  The only way to get the water out of that room would have been to tear up the carpet and pray to whatever god there might be that the walls held up despite the insulation and wood of the inner walls being soaked.  I know I haven’t set a very good impression of my motivation with this story, but when I saw that water, I have never been more driven to get my horrible bug-infested life back on the dry-track.

You would think that this would be enough.  This would be my breaking point, my end of the line, the fifty-thousand pound straw that broke the camel’s back.  When I went to bed that night, I wasn’t angry anymore.  I was just done.  I was so tired, so depressed in my dark spider cave, and so tired of fighting with what seemed like the inevitable downpour of misfortune and chaos.

I slept through the whole night.  If something bit me, I didn’t care.  If something crawled on my head, I let it plant its flag and name that section of scalp after itself.  If something terrible had happened, I wouldn’t have known or cared or responded.  When I awoke to my alarm, I could taste the water in the air, still.  I could feel the wet at the top of my pillow where the cloth had touched the damp wall all night long.  I could see my cat still hadn’t left the bed.  I could hear the lady upstairs complaining to someone about all of the rain from the day before.  I could smell…

Mold.

So much mold.

I didn’t go to work.  I honestly don’t remember anymore if I called out or just conveniently happened to have the day off.  I spent the day looking for ways out of that place, and trying to ignore the mild burn that had started in my throat and in my lungs that I knew would only get worse.  For all of the time I had spent secretly wishing this place would kill me so I didn’t have to live in it anymore, I was acutely aware that, this time, it very much could.

Sadly, it almost did.  I wish I could say I was gone within the week.  I wish I could tell you that I applied for an apartment and was accepted immediately, that I got my things out of there and never looked back.  I wish the world was that easy to maneuver, but instead I spent another two months waiting for any apartment complex anywhere to say, “You are good enough.”  In that time, I never stopped being sick.  I came down with a horrible cough that made talking and even breathing more than a task: simple communication was a gift.  Granted, it peaked at the beginning and slowly got better, but it never really got better.  And I do mean never.  I still have a chronic cough that feels like, at any moment, I could get sick all over again.  I still wake up feeling like things are crawling on me, even though I’ve yet to see a bug in this place.  I still hear the rain outside and want to check the windows and the doors and the walls and my cat and make sure that we’re not going to drown.

Everything we experience in life, good or bad, stays with us forever in some subtle (and some not-so-subtle) way.  It may fade, it may get better, but it might never get better.

I have many bright sides now.  I have more hope.  I have lights and dryness and I can breathe again.  Despite my breaking point, though, and the weight of the terror that can be found in knowing that your own floors and walls are trying to kill you, there is an even brighter side.  In all the time I spent surrounding myself with corpses to keep out the innocent swarms that simply wanted the warmth my room had to offer, I can walk into my house without stepping over a graveyard.  I can take a deep breath without fearing what I might inhale.  I can look at my feet and at the path I am walking and know, without a doubt, that the road is clear, and I won’t be stepping on a carpet soaked in bad memories.  I can turn on the light and no longer be afraid of what I’m going to see.

That prison, I’m free of.  That freedom has shown me how possible it is to tear down the walls that are soaked from a storm, and rebuild a life where those walls are just words, now, that detail a nightmare that I finally awoke from.