A City called Safety

 As the light of the setting sun glints off the city’s steel facades, an explosion of movement spreads across the landscape. Those few seconds lend a magnification of power, gifting precious energy to those who were trapped outside when the blast hit.

Just as quickly as it began, where moments before was a flurry of noise, stillness falls. Occasionally a grain of sand gets carried closer by short-lived breezes. Then the sound starts. Lungs torturously filling themselves with the oxygen expended moments before. Moans of agony escape chapped lips as muscles rebel against the forced action. And then they wait, yet again, for the next day’s only reprieve.

If desperation had a taste, it’d be flesh and dust and sand mixed together, but taste is hard to sense over the stench of the rotting corpses littering the running field. The ones who didn’t make it this far. Those on the outskirts know that taste. They know they’ll never make it in time, not before they wilt or waste or get picked off by the roiling clouds along the horizon.

Those clouds inch closer every day. The acid rain rolls languidly along, melting everything it comes into contact with as it approaches the city. That’s what Safety was intended for. To withstand the predicted acid rain. But the blast came too soon, locking the populace in throes of despair with their beacon of hope but a shiny wish on the horizon. All that’s left is that daily frantic burst of speed. That one hope.

A thing at my feet whimpers, and I reach down with a twist of my hand to silence it. The sickening crunch is followed by the thud of the body and I smile. The sun can’t reach in here – it can’t touch me or my meals. I stand and watch, waiting for my food to reach me. The incoming supply is being delectably roasted out there.

I wonder what they’ll think of this city they call Safety.

Coughing Beans

We’d always been poor. But Ma and Pa made ends meet. No matter what they had to do. Scrounging for food in dumpsters, begging for food behind restaurants, buying what day old rations they could afford.

The mines didn’t pay well. It was grimey, gritty work. Pa came home with a cough. He was all right, he said. Said it until the day he kipped over, spluttering out mucus and blood all over the threadbare carpet.

One tear ran down Ma’s face, closely followed by a second. But only the first made it to the floor where Pa lay. She wiped the other back fiercely, like she didn’t want it to exist.

With Pa gone, Ma took on more work. Not just sweeping up hair down at Jay’s. The local barber wasn’t enough anymore. I could scrounge for me own food, but the littles? At five and six they couldn’t fend for themselves, and at ten I wasn’t old enough, strong enough, or clever enough to do so.

I tried though. For Jay and for Reno, who owned the rights to the market, I ran errands. Under shop-fronts with their corrugated iron roofs, where you always knew if it was raining, down through the desolate quarter with their holey walls and paper castles. We were poor, but there’s always someone worse off.

My meager pay didn’t help for much. It barely paid for my meals and still I was so dang proud of myself. The littles looked up at me, green eyes round like the fresh apples we couldn’t afford. They clutched at the shiny coins in my hands like I was the most amazing big brother ever.

Until Ma came home and coughed.

She never told me where her other work was. She never told me how much we needed to cover the rent of our shack and its missing corner of the roof.  She never told me anything until I held her, hugged her, and heard the rattling in her chest.

Ma tried to speak. I’m sure she tried to say she was alright. But I knew what happened to Pa when he said that – and the littles and I couldn’t lose Ma. Never. Ever.

There were rumors of course. Of things that could cure. Natural things. And of evil things. Things you had to sell body parts to get. I had a body, and parts. Ma had to live.

Jay said Reno would know. And I’d done Reno favors, so I asked. He watched me, an odd twitch to the eye with the scar running through. Rumor had it he could see into your soul. I always thought he’d done offended the wrong punter.

He watched me while I spoke, while I tried to explain that me and the littles couldn’t manage with Ma sick.

“You’re a big boy now, Jack.” He said, clucking his tongue and twirling the straw in his teeth.

I nodded and waited. There was a man behind Reno, but I couldn’t tell much about him. Each breath he took made his chest enormous. His eyes obscured by the shaggy brows above. A huge hulking shadow. The biggest man I ever saw.

“Tell you what, lad.” The man said and his voice hissed like a snake, deep and haunting to the bone. But I leant forward, because I had to know. “I’ll give you these beans, Jack. They’re magic beans. If you can get them to grow, I’ll help save your mother.”

I stood back and crossed my arms. Maybe I’m just ten, and maybe I’m none too smart, but I’m not completely stupid. “If I can get these to grow, you’ll help me Ma?”

For a moment he was silent, but nodded. “I’ll help your Ma, and you’ll owe me.”

Shivers ran down my spine, but I had to be big, didn’t have time to be a kid anymore. “Done.” I said, spat on my hand and shook with the big man before my courage wore off.

Beans. Couldn’t be too hard to grow, right? Never grew a thing in me life, but all I had to do was find earth dirt. I searched and I ran and I hunted up and down. Through the dead zone where the plagued went to die, through the desolate quarter and all through to the end of the poor… and I found it.

Between the high concrete walls of the outer crumbling buildings, there was a tiny sliver. Just a crack in this otherwise concrete jungle. I fetched stagnant water from a nearby puddle and pushed the beans down into the crack as far as my small fingers let me, and then I upended the liquid all over them.

I didn’t tell Ma, though I bathed her forehead and went without my own food so the littles could eat. They thanked me, eyelashes fluttering like butterflies while Ma suppressed the coughs wracking her thin body as best she could.

It had to grow. It had to grow.

The next morning I went back, with a break in the clouds enough to let sunlight rain down on us for one of the rarer moments we get these days. Where the light shimmers and for once the hope surges through that being poor might not be our sentence, but a better future.

The plant was stronger than I expected, with three buds. Against all those odds, it had grown, was growing, right before my eyes. As quick as I dared, I gave it more water, and watched for a few moments. Must’ve been my imagination, but I swear the concrete had new cracks that weren’t there yesterday.

After double-checking my end of the deal, I began the run to Reno’s market to let the stranger know. I’d just stop by our house on the way, to feed the littles and let Ma know everything would be okay.

Screams reached me long before I reached them.

I watched, hands limp at my sides while snakey man stood watching men drag the littles over their shoulders – kicking and screaming – away from our hovel.

“But I made the beans grow.” I didn’t mean to sound so sad. I didn’t even mean to speak.

“Yes, Jack,  you did. No more worries for you now, not with the littles gone.” His dark eyes look me up and down for a moment and his smile hurt my head with how wrong it was. “Remember you owe me. I’ve taken care of your mother for you.”

A cold pit formed in my stomach and I scrambled to run into our house. Coppery tang hit my nose as I barged in. Blood streaked the room, all the beds, even the meager food supplies.

Ma’s blank eyes gaze up at the open gash in the ceiling.

There is no magic.

When the Night Belonged to Lissy

Everybody in the family knew what Cousin Lissy could do, but nobody talked about it.

Ma said that’s because there was nothing to talk about, that Lissy was just the same as any other of us kids and we weren’t to treat her any different.

But really, I think nobody talked about it because none of us could really pin it down. It was like trying to describe the sea. You could throw words at it, but the sea would just gobble them up, throw them against the breakers at the feet of the cliffs, and then change itself again.

When Ma weren’t around, my older brother John would say Lissy was touched, slow, on account of her having gotten tangled up on her way to being born, but it wasn’t really true. John just didn’t like trying to learn how to talk to Lissy right — said sign language was slow, and John always wanted to be fast. Fastest runner, fastest tree climber, fastest everything.

There were a lot of us kids running around, dodging between the family houses, spreading out across the connected yards — especially that summer. Lissy and me were the youngest two except for Bobby who barely had his first couple teeth. All the other cousins were bigger and louder. They ordered us around and talked over us and ran around outside on summer night way after the Aunts sent us to bed, so I didn’t really mind hanging out with just Lissy a lot of times — even though she was almost two years younger than me — because at least it was quiet and I got to say what I thought without someone elbowing me around and telling me to shut up.

Lissy actually liked to watch me sign, to hear about my day or the comic book I was reading. She told me it was a lot more fun to listen to someone who listened back

It’s why I was the only one who got to see what she could do.

The Uncles had made a fire in a pit back a little ways in the woods, this blossom of orange against a pitch-dark summer night, but they’d gone back toward the house, to grab more beers, to sit with the wives while us kids ran around in the dark. The other cousins had started a game of Cat-and-Mouse and scattered into the trees where the darkness could hide them. I wanted to go play, too, but Lissy hated Cat-and-Mouse because she couldn’t hear anyone sneaking up on her, so they always scared her halfway to hell. So I sat with her by the fire instead, listening to the shouts and laughter echoing all around us.

Lissy nudged me and signed thanks for staying with me, and I just shrugged because I wished I wasn’t the cousin stuck sitting with her and I hated myself for thinking that. I didn’t want to be a Bobby. I really didn’t.

She nudged me again. You want to see something neat?

I frowned at her, and she smiled just a little, with half her hair covering her face because she never bothered to pull it back. I shrugged again.

Lissy turned her eyes to the fire. She tapped her bare feet against the ground — bum, bum-dum, bum, bum-dum — and she nodded along with the beat she created. Her hands drifted in front of her, her fingers moving like she was signing things but they weren’t any signs I’d seen before and they didn’t mean anything as far as I could see and I thought maybe she might just be playing and that nothing would really happen. Nobody’d ever seen her do anything on purpose before — not even Aunt Beth and Uncle Arnie. It’d only always been accident.

But then the fire flared up high, throwing sparks like new stars, and the smoke curled thicker overhead. And Lissy stared, so I stared too, and I started to see…something. A butterfly made of flames. A circle of fiery faeries dancing. A giant wolf of orange and white, calling to his pack. The fire surged up, and the smoke twisted around, became a head, became wings, became an enormous bird with a comet tail of flames. It swooped down, brushing our heads, and I laughed. Which made Lissy laugh.

“Samuel Benjamin!” Aunt Beth’s voice was still loud enough to give me a jolt, even from all the way on the other side of the yard. “What’s going on over there?”

I tapped Lissy’s arm, and she took her eyes off the fire to look at me. The bird and the wolf, the butterfly and the faeries all disappeared. The flames dropped down into the logs.

“Nothing, Aunt Beth!” I hollered, my hands moving for Lissy so she could see what I was saying. “Just put too much wood on!”

There was a tense moment, and then she yelled, “Well, don’t do that again. You kids singe your eyebrows off, no one’s taking you to the hospital.”

“Okay. We won’t.”

“Fifteen more minutes, and then you and Lissy come back to the houses for bed.”

“Yes, Aunt Beth.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as silence fell again. Just the singing of night bugs and the crackling of logs burning slow. Lissy giggled a little, signed she was sorry she got us in trouble, and I told her don’t be because that was amazing.

She blushed a little.

We stared in the fire, the shouts of our cousins bouncing back and forth around us, and I swear I saw a knight charging through the flames.

The Lovers’ Stone

Commotion in the foyer coaxed you out of your room the day he arrived at your parents’ Inn. Him and his shining smile. The fall of his hair and his easy words lulled you. His party would join him in several days. Several days of wonderful abandon.

The stars in your eyes were a blinker to the cautions your mother whispered. The same cautions fluttered in your own heart, drowned out by love and infatuation.

Your obsession persisted through trysts in his arms in the hollows by your lovers’ stone. The way your lips fit perfectly against his, your breasts as if molded by his hands. You’d never felt so alive, so beautiful, so wanted, so wanton.

In a swirl of dust and gold his entourage tugged him from your grasp. Then the cold set in as you watched, and waited and wanted to cry.

His fiancé, regal in her splendor, dwarfed you with her beauty. With her fancy jewels, her silk gowns, and hair coifed to perfection. You felt the first seeds of doubt, but he washed them away with feverish kisses in stolen moments, behind the hay bales in the barn, left of the kitchen-midden.

In hurried, hidden, lust-filled moments you ignored all signs that could have alerted you. That might have saved you.

To see the meaning behind his words, the selfish intentions that stole your heart and fired the heat in your loins. To feel the betrayal while you watched in slow motion as the promises he made began to crumble.

He saw your uncertainty and smiled it away, kissed your tears from your cheeks, reinforced promises you wanted him to keep. Believed every word he said.

He said he’d meet you in the mists. He’d see you and cradle you in secret down by the telling stone, the lovers’ stone, where the fog swirled around the moss covered debris of the forest you played in as a child.

The stone, he said. He’d take you from here. Away from his riches and your family’s judgment. Away – just you, him and your love.

You waited, and waited, with your hastily packed belongings tied in the stereotypical handkerchief of the runaway. You sat with your eyes on the stone replaying the love you made there over and over again in vivid imagery that made you blush to recall.


But you don’t remember why you fell asleep, or how long it lasted. The pain in your skull lingers, whispering thoughts you can’t quite grasp, memories you can’t quite believe.

As you sit and think, your hope begins to dwindle, now as it did for those brief respites he was with that other, his, woman. You sit at the stones, feet hidden by the mist, and your mind starts to clear, leaving room for the pain in your head to convey its true origin.

The blow. The crack. The blood. The pain.

The knowledge that he never meant any of it.

You scream, you cry, and you seek, but the barrier of the mist holds you at bay. Holds you near the stones, at the stones, the vivid images you once treasured distorting with the truth you don’t want to believe.

Harsh reality hits you and now you call to him, whisper for him as the days melt into each other. Time has no meaning. There’s only lust and hatred, memory and betrayal, promises and lies.

You are the mist surrounding those mossy stones. Calling to the trees, for the wind to carry your word to him, to lull him and fetch him to you.

Just when you’ve given up making him see what he did, of making him pay – he’s there, at the border, the edges of your reach. His face is shadowed. Strain shows in the veins in his neck as they stand out against his pale flesh.

He says your name and for a fleeting moment you’re back there, here, in his embrace, whispering of love and dreams and futures and life.

Now he’s here, within your circle as the mist closes around him, and you. Around you both.

You pull him to you, your intentions to hurt him like he hurt you, to maim and leave for the mist like he deserted you.

“I didn’t know she’d do this…”

His words slowly sink in.

You don’t need to hear the rest. You know deep down what he’s saying, what he means. It wasn’t him. It was never him. Some of who you were returns, comes back to you – but you realize he’s crossed the barrier now. He’s decaying in the mists just like you are, like you intended him to.

It’s too late now.

But at least you have him, and the lovers’ stone with the moss and the leafy-canopy, forever tangled in the mists together.


Tale of the Heartwood

When the standing stones called, you answered. Everyone in Heartwood knew that.

Edmund knew it, too, and when he was little, he waited to hear them. He was sure they’d call him young – the youngest of anyone in the village – because he was special. More special than the others. More special than Mother and Father knew. More special than any of his brothers and sisters.

They called him Moody Mundy, but they’d be sorry when the standing stones called and the villagers draped him in flowers.

But they didn’t call him when he was eight harvests old. Nor when he was ten or twelve or fourteen harvests.

He doesn’t hear them until he is eighteen harvests old and already a subject of gossip in the village. No interest in marriage as the village girls aren’t good enough for him. No trade or skill to speak of. Edmund couldn’t be bothered with the mundanities of life. He knew in his heart his time would come, and when the stones finally sing out – deep like the earth, sweeping like a windstorm – he feels a thrill of vindication.

Mother weeps. Father drinks. The villagers weave garlands for his neck and head and sing to his good name.

Edmund hears only the call of the stones, of his destiny.

He leaves in a parade, the stars sprayed across the midnight blue sky like festival lights. The villagers will celebrate all night – eating and drinking and dancing until the red sun chases them all to bed.

Not Edmund.

He strides forest, heady with the wet, green smell of meadow grass and flowers, feeling the soft, warm breeze brush across his skin. He drags his boots to rid them of the dust from the silly, staid village glowing behind him and takes big, heaving gulps of air until he’s so dizzy he giggles.

The standing stones call, vibrating in his bones.

Edmund runs into the trees, spins under their dark canopy with their twined and twisted fingers, and finds himself surrounding by mist. It clings low to the ground, dense and sinuous, flowing around his feet like a stream as it pushes him deeper into the forest.

The song of the stones is in his heart now, in his blood.

It draws him miles from home, miles from Moody Mundy, to a bare hilltop where they stand in a circle. Craggy sentinels with faces as old as the earth, staring at Edmund as he stumbles into their midst, panting and smiling despite the thin scratches that lace his arms from running through the trees.

The call of the standing stones rises until it almost hurts Edmund’s ears. Then it drops into sudden silence.

Which is when he sees the first light.

It drifts from the darkness, blue like the sky, flitting from here to there as it makes its way toward him. It hovers near his arm, and Edmund thinks he can see something in it – a little figure perhaps. It lands on him, light as an insect, tickling him, but he’s too entranced to move.

Until it pricks him. He yelps and raises a hand to swat it, but it floats away and hovers just out of reach.

Edmund looks around the circle of the standing stones, a little lost. He was here, where they had called him. Where was his destiny?

Two more floating lights appear from the forest – green and gold.

Then three more after that. And five more after that. Until there are dozens upon dozens upon dozens.

They glide toward him, closer and closer until they are a twinkling wall of sky blue, spring green, sun gold.

Quite pretty, Edmund thinks.

Three of them dive toward him, pluck at his skin and clothes. He tries to dodge away, but they rip him by cloth and by blood.

Edmund stares at his new wounds, at the glowing lights all around them, and panic squeezes his lungs.

He is too shocked to even scream as the lights swarm down and bury him under the watchful eyes of the stars.