“I don’t want to hurt you,” she calls to me. She’s hiding behind the corner and there’s a gun in her hand. I can’t see her, but I can see her shadow. “Please, just let me go.”
“You know I can’t do that,” I call back. I take a hesitant step forward, trying to be stealthy, but the broken glass underfoot crunches.
A shot rings out, coming from her position. I leap back behind the pillar that I was hiding behind. It isn’t like her to miss.
“I won’t miss next time,” she says. “I really don’t want to hurt you!”
“You didn’t miss this time,” I whisper to myself. There’s a bullet hole just a few inches over where my head was. “I can’t let you go. You killed twelve people; I have to bring you in!”
“You really don’t.” She pauses and in her silence, I can hear her reload. She’s serious about this. “They were all bad. You can’t fault me for taking out a pedophile ring.”
“It isn’t for you to be judge, jury, and executioner.”
“Someone has to be!” There’s a note of resolution in her voice like this is the last thing she’s going to say to me. I peek around the corner and another shot rings out.
My shoulder erupts in fire and there’s a wet sound that can only be my blood hitting the wall behind me. I drop down to my knees in pain as I hear her footsteps pitter-patter away from me. I can’t believe I let her go. She didn’t want to hurt me, but she did.
I grasp for my walkie and radio that I need help. I lie on my back and wait. It won’t be much longer now.
I knew I loved you the moment I met you. I was just too stupid to realize it. I was young and dumb, and I didn’t know what the spinning feeling inside my stomach meant.
I met you again years later, and the feeling was back in an instant. This time, I listened. You turned me down.
My heart shattered into a million little pieces and each one stabbed my insides.
Another year passed and I saw you again. Your hair was longer and greyer than the last time, but the feeling was the same. I asked you out before I could lose my nerve and you said yes! I wanted to sing and shout and crow, but, instead, I just smiled and said, “Cool.”
I wanted you to think I was cool. I wanted you to be impressed by me. Luckily, you saw right through my bravado. You saw me and you liked what you saw.
Years have gone by and I know I want them to keep coming with you by my side. There’s only one question I have, and it’s time to ask it.
I take a deep breath and I get down on one knee. I tell you that I love you; that I’ve always loved you. I pull out a small ring box- it isn’t much. You deserve so much more, but you say “yes” anyway.
I tear up and pop up on my feet, sweeping you up in my arms and swinging you around as I kiss you silly.
Mare stared at her computer screen. She had about a dozen tabs open and she needed all of them. There were the two spreadsheets she needed to refer back to, her vision board (to remind her why she was doing all this), her ambient sound mixer, and then the three she was actively working out of. There were other open programs, too.
Her headset dinged, signaling another incoming call.
She clicked the button on the pop-up to answer the incoming call. “Thank you for calling-” she began.
“I know who I called! Do you think I’m stupid?!”
“I’m sorry,” Mare said automatically. “How can I help you?”
“As if you could actually help me!” the caller screamed. “I need a full refund for your shitty so-called service…” The caller kept yelling, they were always yelling. Mare let her; sometimes it was better to just let them talk themselves out.
“I understand your frustration. I would feel the same way in your shoes. While I can’t give you a refund, I can cancel your account so you aren’t billed in the future.” Mare had a system for dealing with these kinds of customers: apologize, empathize, and resolve. Nine times out of ten, the customer bought it.
“I don’t want your phony excuses!”
Mare moved her mic away from her face and sighed. She was so sick of this. She was so sick of the entitlement and the abuse.
“Are you listening to me?!” The customer was still yelling. “You know what? I want your supervisor!”
Customers always thought this was some kind of trump card; like it was a magic word that could grant their every wish. Not today.
“No,” Mare said simply.
“I said no,” she repeated. “I won’t be doing that; you need to learn some manners.”
“Hold, please.” Mare pressed the pause button on her softphone program and took off her headset. She closed her eyes and rolled her neck and shoulders. An instant message popped up on her screen.
Why do you have a call on hold?
It was her micromanaging supervisor. She liked to monitor their calls in real-time and if someone used the hold button, they were in trouble. Mare flipped off her monitor and left the message unread.
She reached down and picked up her backpack, and started putting the few personal effects she was allowed to keep on her desk into it. This was it. She was looking for a job when she found this one, and customer service jobs were a dime a dozen in this town. It seemed there was a call center on every corner.
“Where do you think you’re going?” her supervisor demanded. “You still have a call on hold!”
“They’re on time-out.”
“Time out? You can’t put people on time-out! Get back to your desk or I’ll write you up!”
“You can’t talk to me like that.”
“Oh?” Ice dripped from her supervisor’s words as she spoke. “And what makes you think that? I can talk to you any way I want to!”
“No, you can’t.” Mare’s voice was calm, serene. “I don’t work here anymore.”
“I believe you heard me. I’ll turn my badge in at the front desk.” With that she walked away, leaving her former supervisor frothing at the mouth. She was better than this; she didn’t need to take this.
“Please look at me,” she pleaded. “I promise I’ll do things differently this time.”
Death looked at Lavinia and frowned. He shook his massive head and looked again toward the west. He raised his arm and pointed west. It was time to go.
“What about a last request? Don’t I get one?”
Somewhere beneath the hooded cloak, the darkness gave the expression of exasperation. He shook his head and looked west again.
“Why are you being so stubborn?” she asked. Tears were falling freely down her cheeks now. She was too young; she was only sixteen.
She looked to the west and shuddered. So this is it? This is really the end.
“I was a good person,” she began, “where am I going to go?”
Death dropped his arm and looked down at her. Had he a face, it would have been filled with sympathy. It may not have been right, but it was time. Slowly, he extended his left hand to the west and held out his right. It was a rare display, but it felt right.
Lavinia looked down at it and trembled. Hesitation overtook her for what felt like hours but was only an instant. She took his hand and swallowed.
Death gave her small mortal hand an almost imperceptible squeeze; just the barest reassurance. He led the way, and she followed.
This is part two of another story. To read part one, please click here.
Temperance looked down at her half-eaten sandwich. It was tasty, but she was done. She looked over at Chastity and Kindness. They were giving Humility another pep talk. She smiled.
“Where shall we head next?” Charity asked as she signed the credit slip. Diligence was stacking up the dishes for the busser.
Forgiveness was about to suggest an AA meeting to help with step five when the bell above the door chimed. Seven virtuous faces turned and blanched at the sight of the seven matching sinful faces.
“Well, well, well,” Lust purred. “Chastity, you look unwell.”
Chasity pursed his lips and screwed up his brow. There were a dozen things that only she would say that he wanted to. Pride picked an invisible piece of lint off his suit and placed it on Humility’s shirt.
Wrath squared up against Forgiveness. She smiled as she threw the first punch. Six gasps punctuated the sound of Forgiveness’ nose breaking.
“Hey, take it outside,” the tired waitress said. This was the thirteenth brawl she’d dealt with this month and she was tired.
The fight was fast and frenzied. Even Sloth seemed willing to fight. He didn’t, and Diligence almost got the better of him before Wrath stepped in, but he actually thought about it.
In reality, Wrath did most of the work. She was like an old Norse Berserker, imbued with the spirit and powers of a bear- biting and rending flesh as she went.
Panting and blood-spattered, except for Pride somehow, they went back into the diner. The waitress took their order like she would any other patron. It was a little early for the brawlers, but it was slow and she needed to turn the tables to make rent.
“So,” Envy began. “Now what?”
“Anything you like!” Lust purred. “We are free of the good influence and the world is our playground!”
Lust looked to Envy and smirked. They were so over their head on this one. Lust reapplied her red matte lipstick while maintaining eye contact with the green one. She quirked her brows as she capped the bullet tube and tucked it away in her purse.
“I hate you,” Envy said. His arms were crossed over his chest and he was very carefully not looking at her. “Sometimes, I really hate dealing with you.”
“It’s because I’m gorgeous!”
Envy didn’t try to argue, he just huffed and looked across the street. There was a happy family bopping along together; it was disgusting. He had nothing and here they were, out in broad daylight, happily flaunting their bliss. It was wrong.
Wrath grunted at Envy. It was her monosyllabic way of asking if they needed killing. Envy just waved her off. She bit back on the urge to backhand him for his flippant gesture.
“So, why did you bring us all here?” Pride asked. He was tall and sharply dressed in a new silk suit. He adjusted his tie and tried to look bored by it all while still looking down on Sloth and Gluttony.
They were hand-in-hand sitting on the sidewalk. Sloth was wearing the dirty clothes he’d slept in and Gluttony was scarfing down something that smelled like gas station nachos, but where so covered in other things it was hard to tell.
Lust smiled and blew a kiss to the sailor as he passed by them on the sidewalk; Greed swiped his watch while he was distracted.
“The answer to all of our questions is inside,” She looked in the window. There were seven people, the fun-house mirror reflections of them, gathered inside the diner. “It took a lot of finesse to find them, but I did.” She said finesse like it was a saucier dirtier word than it needed to be.
“What are you thinking, Lust?” Pride asked. He had a plan forming in his head already, but he wanted to hear her’s first so that he could one-up her.
She smiled. “I’m proposing something that will make all of our jobs so much easier.” She licked her lips and winked at a passerby. Envy scowled. “If they were to…disappear…then there would be no ‘good’ influence for us to contend with.”
Sloth was so shocked, he almost got to his feet, and Gluttony stopped mid-bite. Wrath smiled, revealing too-sharp teeth. Envy looked intrigued.
“Damn,” Pride said. Her idea was better than his. “I’ll be damned.”
“And, so will we all, but not for a long time.” Lust said. She sauntered to the door of the diner and opened the door and slipped inside.
The whole world waited with bated breath as the saucer slowly lowered itself to the ground. They were real! Aliens were really real.
Chandra tried not to wince as the saucer landed with a thud, cauterizing the grass of the White House south lawn beneath it. The gardeners would be pissed. Who knew if it would ever even grow back?
The flying saucer looked like any fan of 1950s sci-fi would expect it to; it was shiny chrome and looked almost like two hubcaps connected by a belt of spinning, blinking lights. A tripod of spindly legs that didn’t look strong enough to hold up the craft threatened to buckle as the spinning belt slowed and then stopped.
She watched as the lights stopped blinking and a rectangle on the lower part of the craft disappeared and a ramp slowly extended. There was a blinding light coming from inside the craft.
A shadow stepped into the rectangle and began to walk forward, down the ramp. News reporters scrambled to tell their viewers everything they could glean from the sight.
The alien was bipedal and humanoid, but the back-lighting made it difficult to see much more than that. It wasn’t until the creature was halfway down the ramp that the world saw on their tiny screens that it was gray-skinned with a large inverted pear head.
Huge, black eyes peered out, taking in the assembled crowd. It twitched its mouth in what could only be described as a sneer.
“Greetings, and welcome to Earth!” Chandra called, not sure if she should step closer. “I am-“
The alien held up its hand and emitted a noise like nails on a chalkboard before it spoke in lightly accented English.
“I have just traveled a long and perilous journey- too perilous to talk to some spokesperson.”
Chandra looked over at the general standing next to her and shrugged.
“My people have long been aware of your tradition of a ‘spokesperson,’ but I only wish to speak to someone who actually matters. I have come to parle with you leader; take me to him.”
Chandra squared her shoulders and advanced on the alien. It was shorter up close, and its arrogance made it less intimidating. She smiled wickedly as she spoke.
I stare at the screen before me, looking over the list of things you should lose before you turn 35. The list is long and obvious. Most of these things I’ve either already ditched or never had.
Old receipts, bad habits like smoking, toxic relationships.
The last one gives me pause. I think of Cole. I think of him and how he’s just always been there. Whether I want him or not. I don’t know if I can discard him.
He saved my life once. I was having an allergic reaction and he ran into a pharmacy to get me some Benedryl. Sure, he could have (should have) taken me to the hospital, but he didn’t want his family to know he was with me.
He wasn’t ashamed of me; just embarrassed.
I think of the time he screamed at me (how did I pick just one?) for burning dinner. He came in and started picking at me- at my looks, at my clothes- and I just got distracted. It was my fault, really.
But, still, he saved my life. He kept me alive. Doesn’t that mean that I belong to him?
I read that somewhere. Until I find a way to save him, I belong to him.
I don’t want to belong to anybody. I’m my own person with my own feelings and whims and needs.
But, it’s been so long since I was my own person. The time before I was with Cole (back when I was in high school) was so long ago. I don’t know who I would be without him (and without him, I’m pretty sure I’m nothing).
It feels wrong; I go to reach for myself and…nothing. I feel nothing. Am I nothing? I’m afraid (without Cole) I might be.
It’s my birthday in 43 minutes. My 35th birthday. I made myself a cake and put candles, 35 of them, on top. I haven’t lit them. It isn’t time yet.
I glance at the bedroom. The door is closed and I can hear Cole’s gentle snore coming from the other side. If I trash him, where will I go? I think he’ll get custody of our friends in the break-up.
I shake my head.
It has to be done. I get up off the kitchen floor and tiptoe to the bedroom. I stand over him for a long time; just watching him sleep. He looks so weak; so…human.
I come back to the kitchen and check my watch- one minute. I light the candles. I watch the second-hand tick down.
Then I close my eyes and make a wish. When I open them, I’m alone in the apartment.
Adrian stood at the end of the dock, listening for the inevitable sounds of the lake- birds, frogs, the lapping water, something.
Instead, nothing came to him. It felt as if the fog swallowed up the sounds before they could reach his straining ears. It was eerie. His grandmother would have called it uncanny.
Grandma Jones would have said it was the lake monster preparing to strike. She would have said she herself was eaten by the lake monster.
She went swimming alone and had a heart attack in the water; she drowned.
No lake monster, no nothing. It was simply bad timing. If she had waited just half an hour longer, she would have had the heart attack on dry land, where help could easily get to her. Or, maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all.
The fog was getting thicker, Adrian could no longer see the outline of the trees across the lake. He should turn back and go inside; there was a lot of work to do there. Instead, he stayed, rooted to the edge of the dock.
Adrian jumped at the sound. The sudden noise caught him off guard. Was the fog breaking? No, there was still no other sound.
The sound was soft, like a leather glove across velvet.
The hairs along the back of his neck stood on end. In an instant, he knew.
He wasn’t alone.
Adrian turned to leave, except he didn’t. His body wouldn’t move. No part of him would respond to his mental commands to leave. Sweat trickled down his skin despite the cold of the morning.
Then, it reared up. The lake monster looked like a cross between a shark and a crocodile. It seemed to smile as it looked at him. I opened up its maw to swallow him whole.
All at once, his body finally listened to his mind. He turned and ran for land. He didn’t look behind him as he ran, not until he was halfway back up the grass to the house.
Nothing was there, no monster, no fog. It was a clear day.
The sounds of the birds and the frogs and the water enveloped him. As he gasped for breath he felt a pain building in his chest. He patted his hip, trying to find his phone.
“911, what is the address of your emergency?” said the voice on the other side of the line when he finally managed to dial.
Adrian gave the address and confirmed it for the dispatcher.
Mara was swamped. The line was out the door and growing. It was also her first day as a barista.
“I can get the next customer,” she called over the hissing of the steamer.
“Good morning!” said a woman stepping up to the counter. She was tall, over six feet, and her willowy frame made her look just a little like a pale stick insect. As she tucked a strand of hair back, Mara thought her ears looked a little pointy.
Probably some kind of cosplay.
“Hi! What can I get you?” Mara’s hand was poised over the register, hovering, twitching to get the order started.
“I’d like 10 double shots, please,” the woman’s teeth seemed just a little pointy, too. “Oh, and lots of sugar!”
Mara’s hand faltered.
“That’s 20 shots,” she said.
“That will kill you!”
“I don’t think so.” The other-worldly woman said brightly. “It’s my usual.”
“Your usual? Is this a joke?”
“Nope.” As she spoke, there was something wicked behind her eyes. “You can ask your supervisor if you like.”
Mara turned slowly to her trainer. Mellissa was finishing up the drink she was working on; without looking she reached for the sticker printer to make the next drink.
“Yeah?” Mellissa took to quick strides over to the register. “What’d you break?”
“N-nothing,” Mara stammered. “I just don’t know if I can make this order.”
“Why?” Mellissa looked up at the customer and smiled. “Oh, hi, Titania! Usual?”
The strange woman, Titania, nodded and smiled at Mara.
“Yeah, this one is different,” Mellissa said. “The system won’t let us key it in, so we just scan this barcode. It’s the same price. The sticker printer spits out a blank sticker- then we just make it.”
Mara did as she was told, and took Titania’s money.
“We’ve got a line this morning, and your drink always takes a while,” Mellissa said. “Can I make yours last?”
“No worries, I’ll wait.”
Mellissa nodded and patted Mara on the shoulder.
“You’re doing great, kid,” she whispered.
Mara cleared the line and stepped in next to Mellissa to start making drinks. It was midmorning, and even the drive-thru was slowing down. It was quick work with the two of them both making drinks.
“Here you go, Titania,” Mellissa said. “Thanks for your patience.”
In answer, Titania just smiled. She locked eyes with Mara as she put the 30-ounce cup to her lips and started chugging. The shots were cooling, but still hot. Mara watched in horror as she downed the deadly drink.
When she finished, Titania smiled at Mara and quirked her brows, smiling.
“Until next time, mortal,” Titania said on her way out. When she reached the door, she turned and looked at Mara. “What was your name?”
Mellissa stepped in swiftly. In her hand was the branch with little red berries that Mara had seen on a shelf behind the register.
“You know we can’t do that, Titania.” Mellissa’s voice was stern and she held the branch out like a sword.
Titania recoiled from it but smiled.
“It never hurts to ask.” She waved and left.
“And that,” Mellissa said gesturing to the door. “Is why I told you not to tell me your real name. You can’t trust their kind.”
“I don’t understand.” Mara looked down at her name tag. It said, Dave.
“You know my name isn’t Mellissa, and no I won’t tell you what it is.” She took a deep breath. “If she learns your name, she can control you- make you do things against your will.”
Mara’s mouth popped open in sudden realization.
“Yeah, that’s the Fairy Queen.” Mellissa looked over at Mara. “Just scan the barcode and keep the line moving and you’ll be okay.”