Belatedly, I recognize this for what it is. A dance, Calen is leading me into a dance. Stars, when was the last time I did this?
With Arlo, I had told him I couldn’t handle loving and losing him.
My breath hitches, but that’s all the sadness my heart is allowed before Calen quite literally sweeps me off my feet. They are marvelous, erasing my disadvantage that is unfamiliarity with such a simple act as dancing. The notes seem to swirl around us, no—through us— and I laugh. It starts off small and unsure, but then Calen is laughing too, spinning me in circles upon circles in the middle of the kitchen.
Silas calls out over the music, “Don’t break his hip birdie!”
And it goes on and on, the laughter and music and sun.
Sunlight streams in through the colored mosaic of windows overlooking the backyard, casting reds, blues, golds and purples onto our moment in time. Calen’s soft cheeks burst with happiness when Pesto joins in, prancing around us on those little hooves. A breeze moves through the room, bringing with it the distinct scent of wet earth. I stumble to a stop and nearly topple us both over, but thankfully Calen keeps us upright.
Lysander, Felix and Arlo stand just inside the backdoor, bringing snow covered boots and flushed smiles with them. Felix grins wide at me, stands on his tip toes and gives Lysander a kiss on the cheek, then practically throws himself into Silas’ arms. Silas takes it in stride, situating the witch across his lap and burying his face into Felix’s chest.
And Arlo—oh my stars, Arlo.
He’s looking at me like I’m something.
Like I mean something.
Like I exist.
Like this is it, this is ours and he’s mine and I–
I run to him.
How could I not?
It’s like the first day of my new life all over again. I kiss him, and kiss him, and kiss him.
He laughs against my lips, big palms settling on my cheeks. His hands are so cold, but I don’t mind. I don’t mind at all. His fingers slide across my jaw, tangling themselves into my hair. Heat courses up my spine when he opens for me, allowing my tongue to find his. The same thought that occurs every time we kiss swims in the background.
Can he feel how much I’ve missed him?
The solid, fast paced rhythm of his heart that matches every beat of mine proudly affirms yes, yes, yes.
Only a couple of weeks left, have you signed up for the Crew of Misfits to get this for free?
MM Modern Fantasy, Found Family, Immortal x Man, Grumpy x Sunshine, Guy Witches, a Magical Coffee Shop and Second Chances
“Then I will love you with everything I have, right here, right now, and I will be here when you return.” Arlo promises, like it’s a given. I close my eyes, and he shakes me again until I open them. “I will not forget you again. I promise.”
“You can’t promise that,” I cry, staring deep into twin pools of simmering gold. “You’ve forgotten me once. Everyone does. It’s … a side effect. It’s something I’ve been fine with until I met you.”
He smiles, wet and breaking and brilliant. “I’m pretty great, aren’t I?”
Arlo Rook has decided it’s time to move out of Garren Castle, home for orphans of all races, magical or not, at 100 years old.
It’s not the first time he’s left home, but after a setback that landed the Hedge Witch in the hospital a year ago, he ended up right back at square one. But now he’s ready to strike out on his own, despite his friend’s worries that he’s not ready for the ‘real world.’
Then, he crashes into a mess of copper curls and bright eyes, sending apothecary goods and his life into a chaotic mess. Thatch is a mysterious and incredibly wealthy benefactor of Levena, only spoken of but never seen. He requests a night of Arlo’s company and a tour of the city, which Arlo immediately declines.
But that’s not the last time they see each other, and it certainly wasn’t the first. Arlo doesn’t remember him, no one remembers Thatch after he visits, but Thatch never forgot the Witch with a familiar soulmark on his face.
Thatch Phantom is an immortal, the last of his kind and perpetually bored. When he’s not closing inter-dimensional rifts and corralling demons, he’s visiting his favorite city of all, Levena. Centuries ago, when life was particularly dull, he set up a scavenger hunt for a starving village, providing them with a year’s worth of supplies.
He anonymously returned year after year, upping the ante and providing less practical things, as the village had become a city and was wealthy beyond belief. Festivals were thrown in his honor, and have continued every year since. Hundreds of years later, The Game is still put on by the fabled ‘Scarlet Illusionist’, but no one has figured out who blesses them with the puzzles.
Once again, Thatch is listless and has decided to throw a wild card into this year’s Game. Whoever discovers him will win one wish of their choice, no restrictions. Aside from the obvious, such as no falling in love, murder or resurrection.
What he didn’t anticipate was crashing into the one person whose soul mark flares like a beacon when Thatch is around, teasing the immortal with the one thing he wants most.
Someone to call home.
What follows is a wild chain of events filled with magical coffee shops, villains with vendettas against cheese makers, moving tattoos, grand puzzles, and second chances at love, and life.
Phantom and Rook is out in the world today! Thank you to everyone involved in getting this off the ground, I’m beyond happy with how it came out and glad to have a rest for a little while. The audio book by Kirt Graves is in the works and will be out later in the month. Any and all shares are greatly appreciated, and if you’ve read the book don’t forget to leave a review!
It has been brought to my attention that the Games in previous years have been subpar, at best. I feel that I owe it to you, the why, for as you all know I pride myself on bringing you puzzles and entertainment of the highest caliber.
I have to admit, I did not put these past decades of Games on myself, atleast, not in an up close and personal sense. Think of it as freezer meals that you pop in the microwave. They’ll do the trick, but they’re unsatisfying. It is not by choice that things have been this way, and I cannot tell you why.
I cannot tell you who I am.
What I am.
Why I’m really here.
But what I can tell you is that I love playing this Game with you, and this year, I’ve concocted one that benefits the both of us.
If we play our cards right, all those questions will be answered, and the most precious treasure will be awarded to the first person who solves the Game.
Now, of course, there’s the obvious.
No striking anyone down.
No forcing people to fall in love.
Ask for anything else, and it’s yours. As long as you solve the puzzle.
Await further instructions, and as always,
Let’s play, my friends.
-The Scarlet Illusionist
✨ Two More Days ✨
Check out the mask that Bear Pettigrew made for the Illusionist, isn’t it gorgeous 🥰😍
Today’s witch is brought to you by the prompt desert.
“Code Green, all available practitioners to Bay Three. Doctors Lasange, Berkinson, and Myonski report to Bay Three. I repeat, Code Green, Bay Three.”
I’m the second to last on the scene but am immediately ushered to the head of the bed. My sneakers slide through the viscous deep purple blood pooling onto the vinyl tiled floor. I listen to the rushed report and pull on gloves, my eyes flicking between the patient’s pallid and somehow conscious face, to the shard of glass sticking out of his leg.
Shard is an understatement, I would bet he smashed into a fucking window. But the sand, it’s everywhere. In the wound, on the bed, on the floor. Maybe he crashed into a sand dune too, either before or after the window.
“What do you think, can you do it? Or should we proceed with amputation?”
The patient’s face darts away from the nurse he was happily chatting away with to the Normal doctor beside me, his eyes wide. “Amputate? Oh come on now, it’s not that bad!” He cries, distressed for the first time.
“We’re not there yet,” I lie, unable to restrain my chuckle as I get a closer look at the patient’s thigh. “If you call this not bad, then I’d like to see what you call sort of bad.”
I inspect the hastily but well placed tourniquet that the EMS team enacted on scene. My hand hovers over the area, the glass and sand trembles at a frequency the patient can’t feel, but I do. Thankfully the quartz silica, the fundamentals of sand, responds to my energy.
That’s when I notice the other particles stuck inside the gash across his thigh, splinters of wood with splashes of blue and white paint. That’s really the least of our worries, the main piece of glass is what’s keeping him from bleeding out entirely. For now.
I glance down at the puddle of blood on the floor, then up to Berkinson and Myonski standing on the opposite side of the bed, both of them gloved up and flanked by a team of Normals. I address the Sanguinist, Berkinson, first. “I take it he’s bleeding too fast for you to regenerate.”
The young vampire, a witch with the most ironic specialty I know, nods. A green led on the side of his electronic watch blinks steadily, a visual alternative to the overhead PA system. “Not until the wound is stable.” He signs slowly, then adds, “He doesn’t have good chances, Nino.”
I wince after he finishes the last word which technically means bookworm, but it’s his name for me. It’s not very often I hear my first name, whether it be spoken or signed.
“I can’t work any healing magick either, he’s fading fast. Whatever you’re gonna do, do it quick, I got another adrenaline junkie in Bay Two.” Myonski adds, subtly glowering at the patient. Necromancers are usually intimidating, but given Myonski is three feet tall and the cutest pixie I’ve ever seen, no one tends to take her seriously.
Which is a huge mistake, one I made shortly after starting my residency. Needless to say I learned my lesson, and to keep glitter out of the hands of nefarious pixies who use it in ways that are most horrifying. Thankfully I was able to save Berkinson from the same fate, as he was a couple years behind Myonski and I’s class.
I lift my shoulder and twist my head so I can push up my glasses without my hands. I study the patient, noting how his jaw flickers with tension and the cords in his neck stick out, eyes glazed. He is feeling pain then, not in total shock. It’s a wonder how he’s conscious at all, and I wonder if he refused pain medications because why is he awake for this?
Well, he can help solve the ethical dilemma for us.
“There’s something I can try, but it involves magick, and it might not work. Even if it does, you have a substantial injury that may not heal properly, even with magick, considering how long the tissues have been damaged. You could be left with permanent chronic pain. The safest route is amputation.”
“Let’s save that as a last resort. I’m fond of this leg, had it all my life, you see.” He shakes his head, words slurring. Shaggy black hair full of sand falls over his dilating pupils. I reach forward but he crashes in the span of a second.
What color was left in his complexion drains immediately.
His limbs go slack. His head flops back on the bed.
His eyes roll back in his head. The monitors screech in protest to his failing heart.
Berkinson’s energy snaps through the air with an audible crack, followed by the aftertaste of metal on my (and I’m sure everyone else’s) tongue. The vampire grunts in efforts to pump what little remains of the patient’s blood through his exhausted heart.
Myonski isn’t far behind, anchoring the man’s soul to his body with pure black, earthy threads of life that spiderweb throughout his body. His magick lights up the patient’s flaccid veins and arteries an eerie black that comforts me regardless of how creepy it looks. Not all life saving magick is bright white and plainly beautiful.
Sometimes, beauty is found in the darkness.
The Normal doctor attempts to shove me out of the way, shouting for an operating room. I snap at them to wait. I bring my hands to rest just above the shard’s bloody surface and call upon my magick with renewed intensity.
“You heard him, we’re saving this leg.” I bark, locking eyes with each of my teammates. “On three, I’m going to remove the shard and any glass particles inside the wound. It will need to be immediately flushed and packed, then Berkinson and Myonski will do what they can to get him stable. Then we’ll take him to the operating room. Agreed?”
“Agreed.” The team chants as one.
The overhead lights flicker. The scent of witches working in unison, the unmistakable ozone and something other, overwhelms the air already thick with antiseptic, sweat and blood.
The dual red and black glow of power of my kindred witches flaring to life threatens to steal my attention, but I double down my efforts. I focus on my own energy, a sunset orange that drifts in wispy waves, slipping underneath the massive pane of glass and all the smaller pieces embedded in the flesh of the man who I won’t let down. He’s in bad shape, but I can do it.
I can save him.
“I can save him!” Water fills my lungs, replacing the cry that haunts my nights to this day, decades later. I’m not sure who I was trying to convince, (the Gods maybe?) for it was just the boy and I swept away by that flash flood.
I shake off the ghost of memory, not able to lose even a second of time to trauma. Not right now. I’ll pay for it later, no doubt.
I count down, voice strong as a shiver crawls down my spine.
On three, chaos erupts.
During the next second, incorporeal hands made of magick remove the shard with an obscene suction-like sound. Flecks, splinters and quarter sized pieces of glass follow the main piece which rise above the patient’s body, tearing chunks of muscle, skin and blood out with them.
Normals move in, swiftly flushing the wound with large syringes filled with sterile water. Thin, oddly coloured blood saturated with wooden specks spill over his leg and onto the floor, splashing onto my shoes. He appears human but the blood suggests otherwise. What type of being bleeds dark purple?
Berkinson grunts as the Normals pack the crater in the man’s leg with thick gauze, but I can’t tear my focus from the glass. I transfer the now tightly compacted orb filled with human and glass pieces into a hazard container held open by a nurse.
Myonski coughs, which isn’t a good sign. “He’s fading, I’m losing him.”
“Don’t let go Myonski!” I shout, rushing over to her. The edges of my vision pulsate darkly but I don’t care. I won’t lose him.
“Nino, don’t!” Someone calls out, and I belatedly recognize the electronic tone of Berkinson’s watch. I don’t listen. I rest my hand on Myonski’s small shoulder and am subsequently brought to my knees the moment I open my energy to hers. Her magick sucks away at mine like a vacuum, an endless pit needing to be filled as she works against the will of the universe.
“Don’t let him fucking die,” I manage before collapsing.
A raging migraine, burnt coffee, and antiseptic greets me upon waking. I jolt upwards and immediately regret it, reduced to hunching over my legs with temporary blacked out vision.
“Fuck.” I groan, slowly registering my surroundings as the on-call room.
Berkinson clears his throat, getting my attention. I raise my head, slower this time, to find him sitting at my bedside. “Oh look, the martyr is awake.” He signs fiercely, glasses slid down his thin nose, legs propped up on a chair with a book nestled in his blanket covered lap. His lengthy electric blue hair is tied back in a knot at the back of his neck, tamed since the last time I saw him. For a moment, sentimentality crashes through my heart. He always watches over me.
Then he speaks again.
“You’re an idiot, you know that? There’s a reason why the hospital has a no energy exchange rule.” Each word cuts through the air, his crimson eyes flash wildly as his long fingers twitch. They’re deep and rich, he’s recently fed.
I roll my eyes, and it hurts, but the scoff he lets out makes it worth it. A slap on the wrist is nothing. “Did he make it?”
Berkinson closes his book and puts his sneakers on the floor, eyeing me warily. “Yeah, he made it.”
A huge sigh of relief collapses my lungs and I fall back on my mattress, keeping Berkinson in view. “Good. His leg?”
“His leg, Berkinson.” I snap, immediately inviting guilt into my heart.
I didn’t appreciate him calling me by my first name during the trauma, but shit happens. When we’re in close quarters all the personnel go by first names, but I don’t call anyone by them. Berkinson has always been an exception in private, because I admittedly like the way he says my name. The way his slender fingers meet and spread apart as if he laid open a book, how he brings the ‘book’ up to his face, how his palms sweep across his cheeks, dragging his given name for me across his skin.
Berkinson shifts and I roll my head towards him fully. He’s watching me with an odd expression, lips pressed thin. Eventually, he relents. “He lost a lot of muscle, but Myonski was able to successfully graft Threads, and last I checked he hasn’t rejected them yet. It took awhile, but I was able to get his blood volume stable, too. He’s going to be fine.”
“Good.” I say, turning my gaze to the ceiling.
Berkinson allows three heartbeats of silence, then speaks with trepidation. “I haven’t seen you that passionate about a case in awhile.”
“Something wrong with trying to save someone’s life?”
“At the expense of your own, yes. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but that wasn’t just trying to save someone’s life. Either that guy means something to you, or–”
“Fuck off, Berkinson. I made a call, and it was the right one. I’m fine, see? Nothing personal, just doing my job.” I turn over with a huff and face the wall of my cubby.
Over two dozen cots are nestled into the walls, creating a nook for all medical professionals to call home, complete with a thick mattress and comfy blankets. No one claims them per say, but I prefer this one in the hidden corner of the room.
Berkinson huffs, shoving out of his chair with enough force to startle me. The electronic monotone of his watch cracks through the empty space. “You fuck off, Lesange.”
“Fine, I will.” I throw back with as much attitude as he’s giving me.
“Fine.” He responds via his watch.
The door slams, and I’m left alone.
“Just doing my job,” I mutter to myself, pulling the blankets over my head.
It’s nothing personal. I’m following up on a patient. There’s nothing odd about that.
Most emergency doctors don’t have the time or energy to visit the patients they admit, instead they move onto the next big thing, but it happens.
Samuel Jenks. The name suits him. The door is open and laughter tumbles out of the room. Through the window, I watch the man chat with a nurse who blushes furiously in response to whatever joke Samuel had made. I second guess myself, but the moment I think of leaving, his head jerks up and his attention paralyzes me.
He waves to me like a madman and smiles.
He calls, “Hey, Doc! Come here!”
And how could I not?
I straighten my wrinkled scrubs, then walk into the sunshine filled room with my hands clasped behind my back. “Hello, I’m not sure if you remember me, but I–”
“You saved my leg, and my life, if I’m not mistaken.” Samuel says, grinning from ear to ear. He pats the bed beside his thigh, drawing my attention to his exposed leg that is more plant than flesh. Threads of black plant life weave through the man’s muscle, like a tapestry of magick and nature that replaces the flesh, nerves and everything human that used to be there.
I swallow thickly, unable to comprehend how he can be so damn cheery. Most humans don’t take to having a part of them appear fae-like so well, but the man truly seems pleased with his lot in life. I tighten my grip behind my back.
“I was only doing my job, but I’m glad to see that you’re doing well. I’ve heard everything is healing properly, how are you feeling?” I nod to his leg pointedly. “Are you … happy with your decision?”
The nurse leaves with a small smile, head down as he pulls the vitals tree with him.
Samuel Jenks nods enthusiastically. “I can keep on flyin’, so that’s just fine with me. Of course it’ll be awhile, but that’s alright. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, or so they say.”
I glance at the chair beside Samuel’s bedside, then quickly dismiss the idea. “One would think you’d want to get back in the air again.”
Samuel lifts a shoulder, his smile never quite gone. With the sand, blood and general devastation washed away, what’s left behind is a young man, around my age I’m assuming, that is admittedly handsome. His hair rebels against the slicked back style he must’ve attempted earlier, black is tousled in all directions and hangs along the soft sides of his scruffed face.
“A little blood never scared me.”
And that …
Well, I can’t help the laugh that escapes me.
I cover my mouth swiftly, eyes wide. “I’m sorry, it’s just … a little?” I start, and Samuel’s laugh joins mine.
He waves me off, eyes glinting. “Okay, maybe it was more than a little.”
Once we’ve recomposed ourselves and my heart feels oddly light, he continues with a more serious tone. “I’m not going to stop doing what I love because I might get hurt. I could walk out here tomorrow and get hit by a bus, or mugged and left for dead in an alley. I could live for decades and be perfectly fine, only to die of a cold or something else that’s entirely … normal. But I’m not normal. I don’t want to live, or die, being normal. One day, it’ll be the death of me, but not today. Today I’m talking to a handsome doctor, the sun is out, and I have all my body parts, mostly.”
I’ve found myself standing beside the innocuous chair, cheeks flushed and unsure how I got there. Handsome doctor?
As several beats of silence stretch on, the first signs of uncertainty tug down the corners of Samuel’s smile. I come back down to myself, immediately resolving to fix that problem. “I’m sorry, you’re just … I don’t know. A breath of fresh air.”
The grin returns in full force. That’s better.
“Yeah?” Samuel’s eyes dart to the chair, then the door, and back to me. Then he looks down at his leg, brows furrowing the slightest bit. “Could you … do me a favor? Possibly? Or is that weird?”
I chuckle. “Depending on the favor.”
His eyes drop to his lap and his hands brace on either side of his hips, fingers digging into the mattress as he readjusts himself. Then he warily looks back up to me. “Could you keep me company for a little while? Unless you’re busy, I mean– of course you’re busy, you’re a doctor– it’s just that my friends kind of left and I’m–”
Samuel shakes his head, his grin still on but weaker. “Nevermind.”
I sit down, facing him.
His eyes widen.
“Considering everyone thinks I’m sleeping, I can stay for a little while. But I demand to know the story behind your predicament.” I gesture to fresh pitch black sprouts slowly crawling across his leg, weaving through older magicked tissue.
Samuel’s hair falls across his nose as he shifts on the bed again, drawing attention to the crookedness of it. How did I not notice that before? The amount of scars and bent bones on this man is probably absurd.
He says, “I’m a Dune Diver.” At my rapidly pinching features, he adds, “A professional one at that. My mistake lies in the fact that I may have ignored the official track in favor of … untouched desert, one might say.”
I glare at him, and he laughs.
I try glowering, but he laughs harder.
“I cannot think of any reason that I would willingly dive into a mountain of sand, especially ones that have not been thoroughly scanned.” Flashes of glass, splintered wood and blood come to mind. “You dove into ruins.” I say, more to myself than him.
He shrugs, cheeks pinkening. “I did not expect there to be a castle in that lil’ sand dune. Back where I come from, people don’t build castles in the desert. Unless they’re made of sand, of course.”
That startles me into another fit of laughter, which seems to please him greatly as he smiles at me so wide, I’m afraid it’ll fracture his face. “It wasn’t always desert down here, you know. I still don’t understand … even if it’s just sand, aren’t you afraid of getting stuck, suffocating in one?”
Samuel thinks on that for a moment, tenderly caressing a tiny leaf after it unfurls from his thigh. Now that I’m closer to him, I try to ignore the dark hair across his exposed leg and the contrasting paleness of his upper thigh that is barely hidden by his hiked up hospital gown.
“I have, a few times. It’s terrifying as fuck, don’t get me wrong there.” He looks up to me, an unsureness washing across his face, then he stares back down at his leg. He shakes his head, laughing quietly to himself. “You make me want to say things I don’t want to.”
That ices my blood immediately.
“I can’t do that, and even if I could, witches aren’t inherently malicious—”
Samuel’s head jerks up. “Oh Gods! I didn’t mean it like that, not at all. You’re just … you have this way about you. I feel like I can tell you anything, and I don’t even know you.”
I swallow something heavy that threatens to block my airway. “Oh.”
His fingers twitch in his lap, but he doesn’t look away from me. “I never feel more alive than I do when I’m dying.”
And for reasons unbeknownst to me, I lean forward.
I lean forward and gently take both his hands in mine. He stares at me, eyes wide and pliable under my touch. I whisper, “And what about now?”
Samuel Jenk’s fingers entangle with mine and he grins, but this time it’s soft and sweet and filled with something like awe. He says, “I’m feeling pretty fucking alive right now.”
Samuel stayed in the hospital for three weeks.
I visited him every day.
At first, I scavenged excuses.
He needed more follow ups. Insurance purposes, of course.
He needed company. Solid mental health is paramount to the healing process.
He needed magick infusions, something he would need for the rest of his life. Witches can share their magick in the most mundane of ways, by donating blood. For purposes such as this, only a small amount is needed to sustain the magick in a Normal’s body, someone without a witch’s heart to regenerate the blood flowing through Normal veins.
I insisted that since Samuel’s body was known to accept my magick, that he use mine.
At first he resisted, but eventually gave in after I threatened to stop bringing him Berkinson’s cinnamon rolls. Berkinson didn’t question why I loaded my plate with four of the homemade and absolutely delicious baked goods he brings to work every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but I did notice he started to bring more after the second time I took extra.
The vampire and I are back on good terms, albeit kind of odd and strained, but everything is back to semi-normal. If hardly speakly counts as normal, that is.
Everything is normal except for the anomaly in my life that is Samuel Jenkins.
After the second week, I stopped making excuses for why I disappeared for three hours in the early afternoon. No one questions me, and that is something I’ve been doing on the daily.
Why can’t I stop seeing him? Why does the pit in my stomach widen when I’m not around him? Why does he laugh with me like that?
Samuel and I sit together in his room and I read to him from one of my favorite books. Admitting to a man I hardly know that monster porn can be romantic and heart warming is not something I ever thought would come to pass, but it’s one of many things that the man has drawn out of me. When I try to skip the … graphic scenes, Samuel quickly chastises me for censorship and I’m forced to read them aloud, which flushes both of our faces but we laugh endlessly.
Neither of us have spoken of the fact his leg is nearly healed and his physical therapy has been going extremely well.
“And that was when I knew that I was in love with him, tail, fangs, and all.” I say, then close the book. Sweat trickles down my spine, then is swept away by my scrubs.
“I like that one,” Samuel says, smiling nervously at me.
I clear my throat, setting the book down on the rolling table between the bed and my chair. “Me too. I have a few more by that author back at home, I’ll have to bring the next one tomorrow.”
Samuel nods. “I’d like that. Is it the next in the series, or?”
I tip my hand back and forth. “Sort of. It’s set in the same world but it follows different characters.”
“Oh. I really liked them, though.” He says, almost frowning.
“Yeah, it’s hard to say goodbye, but I often find the couples in the next books are just as good, in different ways.” I stand, stretching my arms overhead before releasing a giant yawn. “Tomorrow’s cinnamon roll day, better get all your rest for that sugar rush.”
Samuel smiles up at me. “Can never have too much sugar. Your friend is a genius.”
I roll my eyes, cheeks flushing with guilt. Berkinson and I have been amicable, but it’s definitely not the same. “The first time you had one you nearly went into a fit.”
Samuel barks out a laugh. “I hadn’t eaten real food in days! It’s all your fault.”
My cheeks heat. “Well, who wants their first meal to be oatmeal? Blech.”
Now is just as good a time as any. Tentatively, I reach into my pocket and take out the project I’ve been working on for weeks. My fingers enclose around the pendant and a shuddering breath overtakes me. I take Samuel’s hand, depositing the necklace into his palm. We haven’t touched again, not with direct purpose, since that first day when I took his hands in mine. I close his fingers around it and squeeze his hand tightly in both of mine.
I search for words. He’s better with them than I am, really everyone is. After a moment, I find some. Whether they’re good ones or not, I have no idea.
“You make me feel like I’m stuck inside a sand dune.” I murmur, watching his face in case I have the wrong ideas.
But oh, I was so right.
Samuel Jenk’s smile widens to that dangerous face cracking intensity. He says, “You make me feel alive too, Nino. What’s this about?”
After a moment of staring into each other’s eyes like idiots, I clear my throat.
“As you know, my specialty lies in manipulating sand, and therefore, glass. I was able to save some of the pieces from your accident, and I thought maybe …” I shake my head, pulling my hands back. “It’s really not a big deal.”
Samuel’s brows furrow and he looks down at his hand as his fingers unfurl. Strung on a braided leather cord is a pendant in the highly detailed shape of a solar board, complete with a sail and the mast. Samuel exhales heavily, carefully bringing the small glass piece closer to his face so he can examine it.
“It’s so fragile,” He whispers, face unreadable for the first time since I’ve met him.
I sit on the edge of his bed, drawing his rapt attention to me. “It appears to be, but it will never break, not as long as I’m alive, anyway. It’s too morbid, isn’t it? You don’t have to keep it, I don’t know what I was thinking.”
I reach for the pendant but he wrenches his hand back, fingers closing around the glass. “No, it’s … the nicest thing anyone’s ever given me. Thank you, I will treasure this for as long as I live.”
My neck heats obscenely and I tug at my collar. “Oh, well that’s … good. Really good. I’m glad you like it.”
“Will you help me put it on?” He asks, and I nod with perhaps too much enthusiasm.
I gingerly take the pendant from him and he leans forward, chest almost touching mine as I reach around his neck. I tie the leather cord into a simple but effective knot so that the solar board hangs at his sternum, resting above the hospital gown. My heart races when he leans back, still painfully close as he looks down at the pendant now cradled in his hand.
When his eyes meet mine again, they are wet and glinting and under the fluorescent lights. “It won’t break? You’re sure?”
I chuckle, unable to help it. “I made sure it would hold up to your lifestyle. “
He grins. “I’ll put it through its paces, that’s for sure.”
After a little while longer, I bid Samuel goodnight and dare to kiss his forehead. He gifts me with one of his smaller, almost secretive but infinitely rich smiles. My lips burn and tingle the entire rest of the evening as I work my shift in a daze. It’s not until much later, when I’m curled into the cubby in the on-call room that I’ve been residing in more than my own apartment, that I realize something.
I never told Samuel my first name.
I have one hour before my shift starts. I knock on Samuel’s ajar door with my free hand, the other holds onto a tray of six warm cinnamon rolls. The next two books in the series Samuel and I finished yesterday are tucked under my arm. Sunlight filters in through the halls and Godsdamnit the birds are fucking chirping. How cliche.
When he doesn’t cheerily call me in, I poke my head through the crack in the door. He’s not lying in bed, but the bathroom door is shut. There’s no nurse waiting outside it to help him back to his bed, but then again, he hasn’t really needed one, it’s been more of a precaution. I step inside the room and set the tray of cinnamon rolls on the empty rolling table, then place the books beside it.
I take a pastry and sit down in my chair, shoving half of it into my mouth. Once I sit down, I notice a scrap piece of paper atop the rumpled blankets littering Samuel’s bed. Probably one of the nurse’s. I pluck it off the bed, fingers jittering as the sugar kicks in. Holy fuck, Berkinson really does need to tone it down abit.
One word scrawled across the top of the paper catches my attention.
My breakfast falls to the floor.
Thank you for taking such good care of me over these past few weeks, and for being a friend to me. An actual, true friend who didn’t care that I’m famous and didn’t want anything from me other than to be with me. I’ll admit it, I took the coward’s way out.
I don’t think I could’ve said goodbye to you.
I’ll never be the kind of person who can stay in one place, Nino. While I think you know that, I don’t want to hurt you, or disappoint you. I know one day our paths will cross again, but for now, I will always remember you as the person who made me feel alive without having to put myself in danger.
I am an honest enough person to admit that I will never be able to say goodbye to danger, either. Please don’t think poorly of me for leaving you like this, but I wouldn’t blame you if you did.
You’ve changed me, my friend, and I look forward to the day I see you again. Maybe this time there will be less blood involved.
I’ll make sure there’s sand, though, just for you.
There’s no use in hiding it. I’m alone, and even though I have absolutely no reason to cry over a man I’ve only known for three weeks, my patient, I sob like there’s no tomorrow.
For five minutes, that is.
After five minutes of thoroughly soaking the note with my tears, the overhead system yanks me down to reality. “Code Green, all available practitioners to Bay One. Doctors Lasange, Berkinson, and Myonski report to Bay Three. I repeat, Code Green, Bay One.”
I leave the books and cinnamon rolls to retrieve later. (more like the empty plate after housekeeping sniffs them out) I don’t miss the fact that the book I left behind yesterday is gone. For some reason, I take comfort in the fact Samuel stole my book, along with my heart.
I leave the abandoned room, shoulders square and head held high as I sprint towards the emergency department, ready to save another life. Berkinson and Myonksi meet me halfway there and I fall into step between them. When we arrive at Bay One, there’s a bloody and sandy mess awaiting us. I glance at Berkinson and his lips twitch upwards.
He asks, “Ready for this, Nino?”
It’s after his fingers finish sweeping across his cheeks that something clicks. I take his hand, squeezing gently. “Ready, James.”
James Berkinson’s eyes widen, and he squeezes back.
One of my favorite things about Phantom and Rook is how messed up the characters are. And I mean that in the most realistic, and best of ways.
Most people I know in my personal life have mental illness, and I have supported people with a wide range of disabilities my entire adult life. In short, there is no such thing as normal. To think living as a cis, healthy person with not a care in the world is normal, is a rather absurd thought.
This is something I did not come to terms with until later on in life. Later on life, I learned that it’s okay to take medicine, or not. That it’s okay to talk about it, or not.
That it’s okay to need help.
That it’s okay to not BE okay.
And I feel, now, that it’s pretty common to not be okay with being yourself until later in life. I most certainly did not know how to be an adult and realize the other shoe wasn’t going to drop until my mid twenties. Don’t forget to throw in the gender crisis that was repressed for far longer that it should’ve been.
What I’m trying to say is that these are the type of people in this book. Adults, with adult problems. Of course there’s magick and unrealistic things, but the characters are the most realistic shreds of imagination I’ve ever put to paper. That’s why these lines in the reviews so far make me so happy.
‘I also loved the examination of mental health and healing. I loved the acknowledgement that while Arlo was on his own journey of healing, his actions had a HUGE impact on his loved ones as well, and this story was as much about them healing from it as it was him.’
‘I’ll start by saying I loved this book. If a book manages to make me laugh, cry, feel angry, etc it will always be a good book in my eyes.’
‘Arlo’s friends play a big part in helping the reader understand him and his past, and I definitely appreciate the focus on his mental health needs while destigmatizing mental illness. It’s so rare to find that as a main focus in a book.’
And just because it made me happy,
‘This is the first book from this author I have read and to be honest I was absolutely blown away and have fallen in love !’
The Game in Phantom and Rook is based on a real treasure hunt that has been ongoing in North America since 1982, called The Secret.
Byron Preiss hid twelve treasure boxes and the clues to finding them were provided in a book written by Preiss, also called The Secret. In this book are paintings which holds clues, along with written clues. These boxes across the United States and Canada in places that represent events and people that played significant roles in North American history.
Those who discover one of the treasure boxes are entitled to exchange it with Preiss for a precious gem. After he died in 2005, his estate assumed the responsibility of honoring the terms of the treasure hunt.
The painter, John Jude Palencar, has also honored Preiss’ wishes and claims he has no knowledge of the actual locations of the treasure boxes, and even if he did, he wouldn’t tell anyone.
As far as I know, only three boxes have been found. I first learned about this on the show Expedition Unknown and have always loved the idea of people exploring and engaging in their community all for the sake of discovery.
Hence, the Game in Phantom and Rook. This year the Illusionist has hidden clues to their identity throughout the town, using paintings stolen from the local museum. The cover itself has a few details regarding the Game, and while we may know who the culprit is, it’s fun to watch the characters struggle in their attempts to solve the Game.
How many details can you spot? Words will never be enough to describe how beautiful this cover is and how much I appreciate the hours upon hours of work the artist, Bear Pettigrew, put into it. Thatch and Arlo are spectacular and I WANT Arlo’s sweater! Scroll down for a full spread with the spine and back.
Everything has been submitted to Ingram and Amazon and in a few days the pre-orders will be available on there, but if you want a signed copy with prints and all that fun stuff, check out my bookstore.
Kirt Graves is narrating the audio book which will be coming out a couple of weeks after Phantom and Rook releases in print (November 2nd) and I’m beyond excited to listen to it once it’s all done.
Today’s witch is brought to you by the prompt Crystal.
A woman hits her knees before me, smacking the translucent floor with an ominous thud. Aquatic life scurries away from the sound waves rippling through the cradling the submerged Den of the Nightingale. While her hands are unbound, and the unseemly gag in her lips is removed, I check my nails. A chip remains in the paint covering my pinky nail from the last mess I cleaned up.
You can tell a lot about a person based on the first words they reclaim after having their voice stolen. Some immediately begin screaming, others argue or demand to know what is going on. A rare few, like the woman before me, says nothing. Blood red hair sweeps across her cheeks as she tilts her face up to meet my bored gaze. Her strong eyes match her smooth tresses in color and shine, but they pulse between the crimson red and an invigorating white.
I pace around the woman, hands clasped behind my back. My talons clack upon the floor and my silken black dress trails behind me. Upon finding the slash across the woman’s back, marring her own black dress that extends from wrists to throat, my wings quiver with distaste. When I stand before the woman again, I close the distance between us so she has to tilt her head back uncomfortably to meet my eyes.
“You denied healing services. Why?” I ask, more curious than offended.
The woman’s eyes simmer with a fresh wave of magick, restrained by the collar around her neck. When she speaks, she never looks away from me. “I’d rather bleed out on your pretty floor than accept help from a goniff.”
I can’t help but laugh. “Me, a thief? Quite a sentiment coming from you.”
The woman scoffs and I snap my fingers, beckoning the shomer standing in the corner of my office. Without having to ask, the human, equipped in fighting leathers, weapons and an astounding amount of intelligence, retrieves a binder from inside their jacket. They cross the room without making a sound, transferring the black leather into my hands without ever touching me. We lock eyes, theirs are a soft pink that contrasts the hard lines of their partially masked face
They give me no indication to stop with my line of questioning, so I continue.
“Thank you,” I dip my head to the shomer. I open the binder and begin reading off transgressions and facts. “Tanuki Starshot, Half-Elven Descent, 127 years old, residence currently unknown. Worked as a psychiatrist at Heartstone Medical for fifty years before quitting without notice or acceptance of the retirement earned. A series of crimes escalating in severity occured, including but not limited to; Arson in the Lesser and Majority, Thievery in the Lesser and Majority, Kidnapping even. The police of course have no leads or a theory as to motive, but certain … sources say that you are seeking vengeance against me.”
Tanuki’s scowl tightens, but she says nothing.
I elegantly drop into a kneeling position, opposite Tanuki. I rest my palms on my thighs, while her hands are shaking fists. I tilt my head, awaiting a response. Third eyelids sweep over my eyes, casting Tanuki in a translucent filter. Her thick, bloody aura is calm, furious, but calm. She isn’t afraid of me.
Tanuki swallows, then says, “You’ve been watching me for longer than I thought.” I can’t help but laugh. It’s quick and soft, but the severity of it penetrates Tanuki’s stoic posture. “Why?” She grits out.
“Why did you crash my Gala and murder three innocents in attempts to steal what is rightfully mine?” I counter, amusement replaced by icy curiosity.
Tanuki throws her head back and laughs. “Innocent? None of you are innocent, that’s why I’m!-” She cuts off with a snarl, glaring at me with a hatred burned anew. “You’re murderers, thieves, cheaters and liars. A stain on Levena, and you’re at the top of the tower, monopolizing the black market.”
I lean closer and she stiffens, but doesn’t pull back. Inches separate us and I smirk to hide the pride swelling in my chest. “You’re not innocent either, dear. Spare me the self-righteous bullshit. You’re here on a personal … errand. If you wanted to see me fall, there are plenty of less dangerous and direct ways to do so.”
I allow that to hang in the air for a moment, and when she doesn’t deny it, I continue in a whisper, driving each point home with a harsh rasp.
“Every settlement, from city to village, has a stain where the less fortunate saturate the earth with their blood, sweat and tears. There will always be those who suffer under the weight of those who live with more. It may be due to personal circumstance, societal pressure or rich assholes taking advantage of the working class, but there will always be those who need a helping hand. Would you prefer a pompous prick to have total control of black trade? Someone who could easily poison this city with such influence, power and connections?”
Tanuki scoffs, jaw working as she stares directly into my eyes. “And what makes you so fucking righetous? How do you help the less fortunate? Murder not only the competition, but all those speak against you? Even those who don’t even know you? Don’t pretend like you peddle things as trivial as drugs and whores. I know about the Wrens.”
I smile, pleased with her intelligence. If it were anyone else, I would’ve slit her throat at the mention of the assassins. “We don’t kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it. If you doubt that fact, I can prove to you otherwise. We target only those who the police can not or will not touch, and for the most part, our work does not take place in Levena. Not until recently, but as you can imagine the NOJ and AWO groups have kept us quite busy. The same groups that fed you false information.”
That finally gets a reaction out of her. Pure surprise.
“Why are you telling me this?” Tanuki asks, hands loosening. Then her face hardens. “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”
“Oh no, not at all. Quite the opposite.” I pat her hand and she pulls back like I’ve burned her. “That would be a waste of your talents, and I’m afraid I’m the sentimental type.”
Tanuki bares her teeth. “No. Fuck no. I’d rather die than work for you.”
I frown, standing. “No, that just will not do.”
Tanuki says nothing, glowering up at me. I return to my desk, glancing briefly at the shomer. They lock eyes with me, then dip their chin.
I take a seat in the plush desk chair, tracing absent circles on the wooden desk surface. I follow the dark whorls of time preserved in plant fiber, allowing complete silence to fill the office for a minute. I glance up at Tanuki, pressing my palm to the desk. She’s watching me intense scrutiny, her fury has given way to intense distaste and interest.
Magick doesn’t rush through my veins and arteries in the same volatile way that it does to my brethren. It flows like a cool, steady stream throughout my circulatory system, powered by the quiet and steady rhythm of my witch’s heart. A pale blue glow dances around my hand, like a loose cloud swirling with an invisible breeze.
Tanuki straightens, leans ahead. Her own magick flares in response to seeing mine, but is still restrained by the binding collar. “You’re a witch.” She says in a whisper, not quite accusing but unsettled all the same.
I nod, pressing my palm harder against the desk. An invisible plume of energy expands from my hand, bringing with it a sweet fragrance that has always reminded me of freshly baked cookies. Tanuki sighs, visibly relaxing. That is, until the desk transforms.
Molecule by rearranged molecule, the wood beneath my hand changes into something infinitely harder, cooler and brighter. Ruby ripples through the desk, washing away all traces of the tree that unwillingly once gave its life to become a piece of furniture. The transfiguration takes less than ten seconds, but they are ten seconds of pure bliss.
I don’t allow my magick out to play very often. People are not all that different from inanimate objects, perhaps even easier to crystalize.
I lift my hand from the desk and straighten. “This is how I help. Why my businesses and my people thrive. With protection, and the wealth I can offer them. I have a gift that most would, and have, tried to kill for. I will use it for good, by the motherfucking Gods, I will. I have never hurt a person who did not deserve it. I have never killed an innocent. That I can promise you. If you work for me, you will have a chance to fight the actual villains, and I will show you just how much you’ve been lied to.”
I watch the calculations fly behind her eyes, the corners of her lips wrinkling as she reworks what she knows about me. Tanuki shakes her head and says with determination, “You killed my mother.”
The shomer leaves their post, crossing the room with squared shoulders. I stay where I am, allowing them to take over. They stand before Tanuki, and I come around my desk, wanting to be able to see both their faces.
Tanuki looks between the shomer and I, face pinching. “What is this?” She asks, and I say nothing.The shomer reaches up with subtly trembling fingers, hooking them through the loops of their black fabric mask. They pull it down and Tanuki blanches instantly.
The true Nightingale, the shomer that has been by my side for decades since she left her old life behind, says, “Hello, Daughter.”
Today’s witch is brought to you by the prompt Glitter.
I’ve officially decided glitter is an asshole.
Witch House is empty, a rare thing these days. I managed to convince Dad–Arlo, that I’m not feeling well, not that I would need much of an excuse to stay home from school. He knows I like going, so if I want to stay home, there’s a good reason.
But I’m not sick.
Oh, my nerves are shot and my glued together fingers shake. That’s only because I didn’t sleep last night and pounded a half a pot of coffee the moment everyone left for work or school. An hour later and the caffeine hasn’t relented, but whatever.
This has to be perfect.
I stand on wobbling legs, the sensation in my toes long gone from sitting cross legged too long. I hold the banner up, inspecting my work. Excess purple and silver glitter cascades down my front and I frown at the drooping letters. A few of the pasted on, gigantic letters flop to the floor with simultaneous wet slaps, leaving behind a partial message.
‘HA PY B RTHD Y A LO’
“Fuck.” I mutter, blowing out a heavy breath.
“Don’t let Arlo hear you talking like that,” A distorted voice says softly, scaring the fucking shit out of me.
The banner goes flying overhead and I squeak. Magick flares and rattles the paintings on the walls. I inhale sharply and contain my energy before causing a disaster. Again.
Silas tucks his chin into his left shoulder, but instead of the usual loud hum that follows the movement, he laughs. In the few months we’ve been living together at Witch House, I’ve never heard the sound. It’s … probably frightening to anyone that doesn’t know him, but I like it, screechy rasping and all.
“You’re supposed to be at school,” I mumble, hurrying for the banner now cast across the craft table behind me. Before I can crumple it into a ball, Silas’ hand falls on mine.
“Don’t do that,” He says, and I frown.
“It’s not good enough.”
Silas shakes his head. Thick white bangs sweep back and forth across the bridge of his nose, hiding his eyes from me. Another thing Silas doesn’t let the world see. His hair is longer now than when we first met. The near translucent tresses cast well beyond his shoulders as he takes the banner from me. I reluctantly let him have it with a huff.
Silas studies the mess of a banner that I intended to hang in the kitchen downstairs before Arlo and the others got home, but at this rate it’ll never happen. He gently lays the banner down on the craft table, allowing rivers of glue, glitter and panel to flow onto the paint covered surface that hides what was once dark wood. The metal covering his pitch black, wrist to ankle ensemble jingles as he moves. All bracelets and chains, harnesses and necklaces.
He asks, “It’s Arlo’s birthday?”
“Yeah.” I nod, rocking back and forth on my sock covered heels.
Silas’ fingers twitch. “He didn’t say anything.”
I roll my eyes. “Yeah, well, that’s D— Arlo, for you. He didn’t …” I gesture vaguely, searching for words that won’t betray him. “He didn’t get to celebrate last year, for his centennial. It’s … kind of a big deal I guess, turning a hundred.”
To my surprise, Silas snorts. “So old.”
I blink rapidly. “Did you just … make a joke?”
Silas lifts his head and gives me a look, or at least I think he is. His lips push together like they usually do when he’s not impressed, and he crosses his arms. “I can be funny.”
“Right.” I say, unsure what to do now.
“Can I help?” Silas asks, gesturing to the banner. “We can make a new one. You were using too much glue. And glitter. Less is more with these things.”
“Oh,” I say dumbly, not expecting that. It’s not that we don’t get along, we just kind of … exist next to each other. I’m always being weird and breaking shit, he’s always on the outside looking in, aloof but not in an unkind way.
Silas turns away with something reminiscent of a soft chuckle, but to others it could be considered an evil villain laugh. “If we take this downstairs, I can bake and give you directions on how to properly make a birthday banner. Two birds with one stone, as they say.”
Without warning, heat swarms my cheeks and neck upon remembering the cake Silas made for me in the fall. It was really good.
I nod. “Yeah, okay. If you’re sure you want to help, I’d like that.”
It starts with a slow, upward tugging of the corner of his pale lips, but a wide smile lights up Silas’ features. “I want to help.”
Twenty minutes and five trips up and down the stairs later, we’ve set up shop in the kitchen. I was afraid of making a mess in here, and frankly after last week’s debacle with the stove, I try to stay out of the kitchen as much as possible. Silas assures me that it’ll be fine, so I leave it to him to clean up any wreckage I leave in my wake, which he agrees to with another smile.
While the oven preheats, Silas helps me roll out another length of six inch wide paper on the floor, this sheet a bright pink. We make it long enough to fit the open archway separating the kitchen from the dining room, then Silas suggests we write the message in glue and spread glitter over it, instead of cutting out and individually pasting each letter to the banner.
Why didn’t I think of that?
“Will it have enough time to dry?” I ask, and Silas nods.
“It should. I’ll start on the cake, if you’ve got this.”
I wave him off. “Yeah. Good idea, by the way.”
Silas opens his mouth, closes it, then starts again when he gestures to the banner. “Shouldn’t it say Dad or something like that?”
Heat flushes my cheeks and I shift uncomfortably. “Oh, I don’t … It’s, you know …” I chance a look at Silas, who hasn’t moved a muscle, waiting patiently. “It’s early, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I wait?”
As the words tumble out in a rush, a weight falls from my shoulders. I’ve been wrestling the word Dad farther down my throat ever since Arlo adopted my, not wanting to seem too—
“Says who?” Silas counters, and I scoff.
“I dunno,” I snap, crossing my arms. “Aren’t people supposed to be–”
Silas puts up a hand. “I’m going to stop you right there. Anything involving the words ‘supposed to’ is generally a bad idea. Do you see him as your Dad?”
I nod, grumbling. “But won’t he feel uncomfortable? What if he doesn’t see me as … As his son?” I admit, near quiet and breakable.
“Felix, you are his son.” Silas says, incredibly soft and strained. He extends his hand to me, then retreats. “Don’t worry about it, okay?”
“Yeah, okay.” I shrug, unfolding my arms.
Silas dips his head but says nothing, retreating to the inner kitchen where counters and appliances reign. I sigh, then settle on the floor, facing the banner. I carefully write the message in a large, flowing script that I’ve been told multiple times is exceptional, but I think it looks messy.
I take my time like Silas said, laying down one letter at a time in glue, gently spreading glitter over it before going on to the next. I have to blow my hair out of my eyes a few times. I’ve decided to try growing it out and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. While mine doesn’t grow as fast as Silas’ does, it’s long enough to be in the way.
We work in companionable silence and I glance at him a few times, only able to see the top of his head from my place on the floor and the counter island separating us. He appears to be in his own little world. Hair bouncing softly as he enjoys the music that must be blaring in his earbuds now. I do want to know more about him, and maybe become friends, but I have no idea what to say to him. On the bad days when I can’t separate other people’s thoughts from my own, I’ve stolen glimpses of Silas’ mind.
That’s why I don’t feel so bad for not pursuing conversation and allowing him to take the lead. Or so I tell myself, which sounds better than being the clueless kid everyone sees me as. While I’m not an adult, I’m not a kid anymore either. It’s easier to talk now than it used to be, but not always. I had thought I would’ve grown out of it, but … here we are.
I decide to be a little brave. If Silas didn’t feel like interacting, he wouldn’t have offered to help, right?
“When’s, uh, when’s your birthday?” I ask, head ducked as I work on Arlo’s name.
He doesn’t say anything.
I peek up, finding him standing with his back to me, in front of the oven. I don’t ask again and he doesn’t move, so I go back to work. A few minutes pass in silence, then the gentle thud of Silas’ boots cross the room towards me.
I swallow heavily, pretending that I don’t notice.
But then he sits cross legged across from me, hands gripping his knees. I warily look up through my hair, shaking it out of the way so I can see him better. His back is ramrod straight, head tilted as he watches me. One side of his lips twitches into an almost smile.
“You should let me pin your hair back, you’ve got glitter and glue all in it.”
I balk, reaching up to inspect the hair in my eyes, realizing a moment too late that’s a bad idea. I groan, setting down the glue with my other hand. I glare at Silas and he chews on his bottom lip to keep from smiling again. I itch to throw him off, just a little.
“Fine, only if I get to do yours.” I say without a second thought, then am immediately horrified. I’m good at braiding hair, Kleo made me do hers all the time, but Silas doesn’t seem like the kind of person who enjoys being touched.
Silas hums in a short, loud burst, the sound of it reminds me of an aborted laugh. I imagine if I could see his eyes, they’d be widening. He lifts his left shoulder and rubs his cheek on the peak of it, then regards me once more. I never flinch from his movements or noises, and the others don’t either. At least not on purpose.
Silas’ outbursts can be sudden and there’s been a few times when he’s been especially startled. His magick lashes out like my own, breaking things, but it’s always an accident and it embarrases him. So I don’t flinch.
I shrug, picking the glue back up. “I’m just joking. You can … You can fix it, if you want. It’s kind of in the way, I don’t know how you do it. You don’t have to, though.”
Silas scoots back, allowing space between him and the banner. He crooks a finger in a ‘come hither’ gesture. I oblige, leaving the glue behind. My cheeks flush and I sit in front of him, unsure what to do.
“I don’t have any pins,” I say.
Silas reaches into his pants pocket, revealing a handful of bobby pins.
I nod once, giving him a sideways smile. “That’s handy.”
“Do you mind if I listen to music while I do this?” Silas asks, drawing his hand back.
I shake my head, drawing my knees to my chest. “No, you don’t gotta ask. Thanks for letting me know.”
Silas nods, tapping the side of the earbud buried in his hair. His mouth twitches and he doesn’t move, so I close my eyes.
A moment passes.
Then, ever so gently, cold fingers brush against my forehead. I fight the shiver threatening my spine as he twirls a patch of hair, then pins the twist back against my crown. He repeats the process, my hair not quite long enough to be fashioned in any neat sort of way. I’ve never had my hair done before.
And he breathes.
I tilt my head, the subtle sounds of Silas’ music reach my ears. I strain to hear it better. It must be wicked loud if I can hear the interwoven harmonies of a violin and an electronic beat. Silas doesn’t resume his work and I clear my throat, opening my eyes.
He grins. “I can see you.”
“You’re one to talk.” I roll my eyes, huffing out a laugh. I gesture to his own hair. “Ready?”
Silas tenses, then nods. I don’t ask again, because I have to believe that he’ll tell me if he’s uncomfortable. He reaches into another pocket, then offers me a hair tie. I’ve never seen him use either accessory, I wonder why he carries them around. Before I can ask, he turns around and puts his back to me. I drop my knees, spreading my legs out on either side of his curled body.
“Okay.” He says, looking anything but.
I roll my bottom lip between my teeth. Chocolate fills the kitchen and I fill my lungs with the warm scent, then exhale a question. “Would you mind if we … listened together?”
Silas sharply glances back at me over his shoulder, throwing white hair from his eyes. For the briefest of seconds, I catch a glimpse of icy blue.
“You won’t like it.”
“How do you know?”
He shrugs, turning his attention ahead once again. I take that as answer enough and gently touch his shoulder before moving to his hair.
“Tilt your head up,” I ask softly.
Silas doesn’t move, atleast, not in that way. He reaches into one of the side cargo pockets, taking out a phone. After a few seconds of messing around on it, music begins to spill out from the phone’s speakers instead of the earbuds. Sure enough, an energetic violin is accompanied by a modern, electric beat, forming a refreshing melody. He sets it down on the ground outside of my legs framing him, then tilts his face to the ceiling.
“Thanks,” I say, then gather three incredibly soft fingerfuls of white at the base of his temple. Silas shudders and I pause my movements. “You alright?”
“Yes.” Silas says immediately, then hums long and low before answering again. “I’ve never had my hair done before.”
I laugh quietly. “Me either, until now. Trust me, I know what I’m doing. Kleo loves her hair being done.”
I wait another moment, then start braiding Silas’ hair.
It takes longer than it should have, and not because of how long and thick his hair is, but because we both can’t stop moving to Silas’ music.
It started with Silas. He would bob his head or his fingers would dance on his thigh, then stop, as if catching himself. After the third time he cut himself off, I softly began tapping my toes on the floor and swaying back and forth, gentle as to not pull his hair. I added humming for good measure, but otherwise kept the silence between us.
With each noise and small movement that I made, Silas’ shoulders lessened and lessened until he was happily moving in place and humming along with me. Then, he started to tell me about each song that came on, all by the same violinist.
And I listened.
Now, I secure the tail of the main braid. A masterpiece, if I do say so myself. Numerous plaits begin at the front of Silas’ pale head. A main one in the center and three on either side which interweave with each other, snaking back and forth until meeting again at the base of his neck. The end of the singular, thick braid running down his spine comes to an end between his shoulder blades. I gently lay the white locks against his black shirt.
“Finished,” I say softly, not moving any further. I haven’t paid any attention to Silas’ face, not even when I uncovered it bit by bit, braiding his bangs back into the center section. I wanted to wait until all his hair was restrained, but now a swell of nervousness rushes over me.
I take a deep breath upon realizing the feeling is not mine.
“How does it look?” Silas asks quietly, staring straight ahead.
“Well, not to brag, but I think it’s pretty epic.”
Silas snorts. “I better go check the cake.”
“Oh, right.” I say, watching him stand and walk away from me. I sit there, feeling empty and a little disappointed, but unsure why. I decide not to dwell on it and be thankful that he trusted me to be in his space, to share his music. I spin in place on the floor, checking out the banner that was once behind me.
I smile at how beautiful it turned out, poking the glue to ensure it’s dried.
I stand with the banner in my hands and turn, coming face to face with Silas.
“What’re you guys doing?”
I startle out of my skin and throw my hands up. Before the banner can go flying Silas is there to steady me, hands blanketing mine. Both of us look at the man standing in the open doorway separating the kitchen from the backyard.
An incredibly long silence follows.
I scrape my brain for something, anything to say, but of course, Silas saves me.
He gently releases my hands, then waves to Arlo with eyes so bright my heart does a weird little flip that hurts. Silas says, “Happy Birthday, Arlo. You’re supposed to be at work.”
Arlo raises a brow, the smirk upon his face widening. “Thank you, and you’re supposed to be at school.” Arlo’s emerald eyes slide from Silas to me and I awkwardly wave.
“Hey, Dad.” I say, lofting the formerly unspoken name into the air like a bomb. I inhale sharply and my heart pounds in my ears. It’s soon overwhelmed by the sparkle in Arlo’s eyes and the soft laugh that bubbles from his chest. I smile then, and add, “Happy Birthday.”
I spent three years calling them my imaginary friends.
Then, I witnessed my first death and learned otherwise, diving into a world of secrets, of shame. No matter what, no one could know. My life depended on it.
But, like all secrets, it was found out. He found out. I lost friends, so many friends, and I wore a tragic blanket of pain that I didn’t shed for centuries. I never lost the memories of my first friend, either. They are the first memories I ever had, for that fact.
I met a ghost for the first time when I was six.
I stumble through the depths of a ravine. Distant, jagged cliff tops overhead hide me from the sun strangled by storm clouds. There is no canopy to protect me from the heavy rain and snowflakes pelting my frozen, bare skin. Only a few sparse trees occupy the violent gouge in the earth, all vegetation dead and offering no shelter. Water rushes down the center of the chasm, the powerful swells erode the pebbled ground beneath my numb toes.
For reasons unknown, I follow the downhill flow and stay off to the side of the rushing, unnatural river, but the water level grows and grows and grows. A rumbling shakes the earth and my teeth chatter harshly in response. My feet don’t hurt as much as they did before, but they’re cold, so cold. I have to run, the water is coming, it’s coming.
It bites at my ankles and I stumble, reaching out for a branch. My feet go out from beneath me and I catch the limb, sharp bark scrapes against my palms.
The river captures me, dragging me beneath the white capped tide kicking and screaming, inviting water into my lungs and fatigue into my already exhausted bones. I’ve been walking for so long. Why was I walking, where was I going?
Why am I alone?
I manage to get my head above water, but the spinning world of furious storm clouds, dead things and ancient stone blurs together and the edges of my vision pulse darkly. My heart throbs in my ears, deafening everything else.
Everything except for a voice.
“Take my hand!”
And I do.
A small hand takes a firm hold of mine.
They pull, and the river pulls back. What’s left of my clothes threatens to drown me and I cry, the burning tears are the only heat to grace my body. Shards of rock and decimated branches tear at my body until the river finally releases me. I collapse atop a cold, stiff body and horror freezes my cracking veins until the person moves.
Not just a person, a kid. Like me.
They scramble to their feet, pulling me up with them. “Are you okay?!” They shout over the wind and I try to nod, shivering uncontrollably, but my neck is stiff and my body won’t listen. I reach up, absently pulling at my hat. It’s still on and I almost sob with relief. “Come on, this way!”
I take a step, crumpling. Cold hands take a firm hold of my arms, preventing me from falling backwards into the water. Before I can say anything, the kid hauls me up over their shoulder like I weigh nothing. They trudge across a flat, inclining stone, slipping every so often but not falling, carrying me to safety. We finally settle beneath a small overcropping that barely protects us against the rain and snow, but there’s distance between us and the river.
Carefully, they set me down on the pebbled ground. The chasm’s atmosphere is dark and black hair is plastered to the kid’s face, making it hard to see them properly. “Better to find high ground then try to outrun it. Are you alright?” They ask, straightening to a height that is twice mine but gangly and unmistakably child-like, if not on the cusp between teenager and adult.
I nod, teeth chattering.
“Can’t you talk?” They ask, and I nod.
“I, I’m okay, th-thank you. Wh-what’s your n-name?” I manage to say through the thick cold. The kid kneels beside me, blanketing my body and taking the brunt of the wind. I open my mouth to protest but they wave me off, then tuck locks of jet black behind their ears. A pale face with a ceramic like quality and endless, gray eyes are revealed, not unlike the thunderous storm overhead. I’ve never seen a kid like them before, like an ancient person in a child’s body.
They chuckle, and their own teeth start to chatter as they fend off the outside world. “You can call me Los. What’s yours?”
I frown, trying to remember but with no luck. “I don’t know.”
“Oh,” Los says, smile fading. They shudder against a particularly violent gale and I offer to trade but they laugh. “You’re half my size, short stuff. It’s alright, it’ll be over soon, nothing I’m not used to.”
“D-Do you live out h-here?” I ask, hands buried in my armpits.
Los shrugs. “Something like that.”
They nod once, turning their face away from me. “Yeah.”
We don’t speak again for a while after that. Everything hurts, and the cold is everywhere. My clothes are shredded and my bones are bruised. My head throbs and the only relief I can find is when I shut my eyes, but Los won’t let me fall asleep.
Los says, “Hey, hey, don’t fall asleep. Tell me where you’re from.”
And I say, “I don’t know.”
Los says, “Why you walking out here by yourself anyway?”
And I say, “I don’t know.”
Los says, “I’ll help you, okay? All you have to do is stay awake, okay?”
And I say nothing.
The morning sun overtakes the rain and the river fractures the ravine, albeit at a slower pace and with much less force. Los helps me out of our crack in the cliff, ensuring I don’t step on splintered debris with my bare, dusky purple toes. Despite the warmth cutting through the thick, lingering storm clouds, I’m cold. Los’ hand is even icier than mine, and my breath escapes in warm puffs.
At the time, I hadn’t noticed that Los’ breath did not.
“Well, which way do you want to go?” Los asks, tying their black hair back into a knot at the base of their neck. Bruises encase their throat and I stare at them unabashedly, like a six year old does. Ovals of nasty green, deep purple and violent blue dot either side of their throat and when Los catches me, he swallows and looks away.
“Are you okay?” I ask, tugging my hat down.
Los nods, giving me a small, sideways smile. “Yeah, I’m fine, don’t worry about it. What about you? Where’s home?”
I tug at my ear, wrinkling my nose at the dirt scraping annoyingly beneath my fingernails. “I have to go that way.” I say eventually, pointing in the direction I had been going last night, downstream.
“Okay,” Los says, brows narrowing. “Do you know why?”
They sigh. “‘Course you don’t. Alright, well, there’s a town that way, but it’s a long walk. I can carry you on my back for a little while, your legs are still pretty sore, right?”
Los tilts their head, frowning. “Why … what?”
“Why are you helping me?”
“Oh,” Los says, then shrugs. “You’re a kid and you need my help, and I have nothing better to do.”
I study the person before me. I don’t know much, but I do know that I would’ve died last night without Los. I don’t know what trust means, but a thread of it connects us in that moment, a tenuous thing. Stranger or not, Los is all I have.
I’m also six, and not walking on my own two feet after nearly dying sounds too good to pass up.
I say, “Okay.”
Los hauls me onto their back, hooking their arms underneath my knees. I wrap my arms around their neck, holding on tight. Los begins to traverse through the remnants of the storm, slow and steady. Upheaved tree roots stretch into the sky and the rocks they disturbed have been violently scattered across the ravine floor, interspersed with snapped limbs. There are no birds, no sound other than Los’ grunting as they walk and my slow breathing, the lull of the river. The sun hides behind a new shroud of clouds, allowing time to become a foreign construct.
“I can walk, you know.” I grumble after a while.
Los barks out a laugh, the sound of it echoing off the stone walls flanking us. “He speaks! Nah, I’m alright for now. We’re almost there.”
“You said that earlier.” I remind them, and Los grins at me over their shoulder.
“We’re closer than we were before.”
I roll my eyes, secretly grateful Los is carrying me. I’m so tired, but they won’t let me sleep. “Not yet,” They say, and I do my best to hold onto consciousness.
Los takes to telling stories the next time my arms slacken around their neck. The first one is about a fabled god called Leviathan, roaming the seas in a massive, snake-like body. They terrorized ships and cities until brought down by a mighty, unnamed warrior. The next tale is about an Oak Treant who guarded a bridge, allowing only the most clever to cross.
“What is clever?” I ask, and Los shrugs, blowing hair away from their mouth.
“I dunno, like smart I guess.”
“Like you, then.”
Los huffs out a laugh, but the accompanying smile doesn’t reach their eyes. “Sometimes.”
In the distance ahead of us, something impossible appears. A horizon, an end to this chasm full of dead things and rushing water, perpetual stone. My heart skips a beat and I bury my cold nose into Los’ spine, avoiding the inevitable unknown. Their clothes are simple, dirty and torn in places but in better shape than mine.
I’ve managed to stay awake until now, but the clouds have finally parted and the sun is out in full force, stroking my face with such warm softness that it’s impossible not to fall underneath the beckoning tide of sleep. After Los hikes me up higher on their back for the fiftieth time, I drift into dreams thick with fire.
A soft, cool blade of grass tickles my nose.
Earth overwhelms my nostrils and a thick dew dampens my curled up body, heightening the scent of life and dirt all around me. I wearily blink my eyes open and groan, unfurling stiff limbs. “Los?” I ask, their name hoarse and stretched through my raw throat.
“Right here, kid.” Los says, seated beside me with their long legs stretched out in tall grass. They toss an apple up into the air several times, then hand it to me when I manage to sit up fully. “How’re you feeling?”
I take the apple and bite into it without a second thought. “Better. Thank you, Los, for saving me.”
Los smiles at me, brighter than the sun cast behind them. It teases the other side of the lake, a warm sunset that hasn’t quite darkened the sky yet.
“Where are we?” I ask, watching a flock of bright blue wyverns passing overhead.
The shoreline is grassy and peaceful, trees full of bright green leaves and needles dot our area. Interrupting the shining, seemingly endless waters are islands. One isn’t far at all, full of trees and connected to the shore by a land bridge of sorts. A broken and jagged galleon rests precariously on a smaller island, a torn flag catches the easy breeze.
Behind us a little ways, where the grass slopes upward, is a road. The road goes on further than I can tell from here, rolling to the east and west. I give my attention back to Los when they don’t answer me. They braid their hair, overlooking the lake wistfully. I reach out tentatively and rest my hand on their knee, startling them.
“Oh! Um, I’m not really sure. I just call it the End.” Los says, giving me a sideways, half-way there smile.
“The End?” I tilt my head at them, then look around. Wherever we are is infinitely more open than where we had just come from. The ravine isn’t even visible from here. The way I think we came from is behind us, but the road blocks my view. “It doesn’t seem like the End.”
Los shrugs, working on another braid. There’s four now, thin ropes that trail from their right temple down their shoulder. They sigh, glancing at me with something akin to exhaustion. “This is as far as I go, kid. I didn’t want to leave until you woke up, but this is the End, for me, anyway. Come on, I’ll show you which way to go.”
I start to tremble and Los smiles, but it’s sad.
Los says, “Hey, it’s okay. You won’t be alone for long.”
I say, “Why can’t you come with me?”
Los hugs me then, and they’re so cold, but I hold onto them with all I have. I wrap my arms around their neck and my legs around their waist, burying my face in their scrawny, bruised neck. Los stands with me in their arms, holding on tight.
“I wish that I could, but I can’t. I have to go back now, but I’ll show you the way.”
“I don’t want to be alone, please.” I sob onto Los’ tunic, fingers digging into their hair.
We crest the small hill, leaving the lake behind in favor of the dirt road. Los rubs a hand up and down my back, then gently sets me down on wobbling legs. My knees knock together and I clutch the front of Los’ shirt.
“You won’t be alone, okay? Look, see that castle up there?” Los points and I follow his attention, finding the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
A city with pretty lights, towering windmills and equally impressive buildings, a curving river street and a small grove at the base of a massive, ancient castle. It’ll take forever to walk up there, but the sight of it warms my heart. “I see it.” I say, still clinging to Los.
Los kneels, taking my hands in theirs. “Good, okay. All you have to do is follow this road and it’ll take you there. Go to the castle, they will keep you safe. You’ll have to be on your own for a little while, but you braved a storm all by yourself, you can do this, right?”
I stare into Los’ eyes, my mouth opening and closing a few times. Eventually, I nod, but there is one thing I have to disagree with. “I wasn’t alone Los, I had you.”
Los smiles, a full and real one. “Sure, kid. Stay safe, okay?”
“Okay.” I stand taller, squeezing their hands tighter, then launch into their arms. Los belly laughs, hugging me tight. They sigh, shoulders dropping like a burden was smashed away.
“Have a good life, kid.”
Eleven Years Later
Spring cracks through the earth, relentlessly shoving new life through fractured stone. There are other rare spots that birth vegetation in the otherwise barren ravine, but I’m looking for one place in particular.
My boots crunch over dead sticks and I trace my hand along the rocky edge of the ravine, eyes trailing the cliff tops above me. I’m older, but the gouge in the earth has the same effect it did on me when I was young, making me feel small and insignificant. In the grand scheme of things, the universe, life and death, I suppose I am.
The ice has melted and a storm tore through here two days ago, providing a thick stream of water that gushes downhill. I stay clear of it, like my friend told me to do long ago. If it weren’t for the sun, it would be downright freezing. As it is, my fur lined leather jacket is spelled for extra warmth and my nose is still cold. I readjust my knitted beanie, an echo of the one I wore decades ago. I can hear Cas in the back of my mind, giving me shit for forgetting my gloves.
I stop walking, breath stolen.
The nook in the wall of stone is smaller than I remember. I kneel, pressing a hand to the cool wall. The overhang barely protects me against the sun and I smile, heartstrings torn. Dead pine needles roll beneath my knees and I press my forehead to the stone, closing my eyes. I breathe in the scent of decay, icy dirt warmed by the sun and something off. A smoky scent.
I sit on my ass, back to the wall, and wait.
I smoke a few bowls, happy to let the world go by. I’m sure Kitt is wondering what the hell I’m doing, but this is something I have to do on my own. Leon thinks I’m with Chauncey and isn’t coming round tonight. Cas is at school, living his own life, and Kitt is covering for me at the castle. Kitt’s a good friend like that, she doesn’t ask questions when I don’t immediately divulge information. This is a story I want to keep to myself. I haven’t been ready, but I think I can help now.
A stick cracks and I look up from the burnt herbs in my hand.
“Hey, kid.” The ghost says, looking exactly the same as the day I met them. Black hair greasy and braided, skin pale and eternally bruised. I wonder what it means that I recognize the stains on their tunic are the same, the torn holes neither smaller or larger.
Los smiles shyly at me, and I smile back.
I rise with purpose and embrace Los just as solidly as I did years ago. It takes them off guard, almost like they expected me to go through them now that I’m an adult, but then Los hugs me with a firmness that I haven’t felt in years. Funny how the dead can make you feel so alive.
“Oh, kid. This is … Wow, look at you.” Los says, hands tight to my biceps when they pull back and study every facet of me. I’m taller than them now, retaining some of my boyish gangliness but not all. I’m almost a man, like Los. “I can’t believe you came back.” They admit, choking on a wet laugh.
“I’m not a kid anymore.” I chuckle, gripping the back of Los’ neck. I bring their forehead to mine and Los sighs, eyes closing. “You saved my life, Los, and I’m here to give you yours.”
Los rears back, but they don’t pull away completely, fingers drifting down to my hands. “What?”
I nod, squeezing gently. “I’m a witch, a Hedge Witch. I can take you out of here, Los. I can take you to what’s next.”
“What?” Los blinks rapidly, tears welling in their stormy eyes. “How?”
I fight the urge to tug on my hat, not wanting to release their hand. “Well … I haven’t actually done it before, you’ll be my first.” I flush profusely, then hurriedly add, “My first passing. But I know what I’m doing, I promise. We’ll just take a walk together and … talk.”
Los raises a disbelieving brow. “Sounds promising.”
I roll my eyes, tugging on their hands. “Do you trust me?”
They watch me with soft eyes, debating in silence for a moment. “Yeah, kid. I do.”
I smile, unable to help myself. “Okay.”
“Okay,” Los says.
We stand there, holding hands, and Los clears their throat after a full minute.
“Like, right now you mean?” Los says through a smirk, and I startle to reality.
“Oh! Yeah, sorry, it’s just, you’re here. I … It took me a long time to realize what you are, and I honestly thought you would’ve … went on.” I admit, meeting Los’ eyes warily.
Their smile fades. “And what was that?”
Heat swarms my cheeks and I release Los’ hand, rubbing the back of my neck. “It’s dumb.”
Their smile returns full force. “Oh yeah? Let’s hear it then, but on the way. I want to show you something.”
“Okay, yeah.” I say, falling into step with Los as they lead us further into the ravine. Los gives me a ‘well, get on with it’ look, and I clear my throat. “Fine, fine. Nobody believed me that there was a boy in the ravine, they came and looked for you, you know.”
Los nods, hands in their pockets. “I remember, I was there, but they couldn’t see me. You were the only one who ever has.”
That threatens to trip me, but I keep my composure. “So … I’m the only one you’ve ever talked to since …”
“Since I died? Yeah.” Los says, clipped and bitter.
“Was it a long time ago?” I ask quietly, stepping over a fracture in the boulder beneath my feet.
Los shrugs. “Feels like it. What year is it?”
I tell them, and they shudder. Los goes quiet for a while after that, focusing on the non-existent path. Eventually they say, “I’ve been stuck here for fifty years, then.”
“Oh, Los.” I say, taking their hand in mine. Los stops walking, staring at our connected bodies. Their eyes drag up to mine, and they smile sadly. “You’re not alone anymore.”
Los laughs, but it’s broken. “For now.”
I shake my head. “I don’t know much about the … the Other Side, I call it, but it’s … It’s not lonely over there, not for people like you. I know that much.”
Los tilts their head at me. “Like me?”
I nod. “Good people.”
Los doesn’t say anything, only drags me forward to an area thick with brush and trees, much more so than the parts of the chasm we’ve come through so far. They look at me, tucking a lock of hair behind their ear. “We gotta crawl through here.” Los points to a tunnel in the brush and I nod, doing as they say.
Dead branches and thorns scratch at my jacket, hands and face, but I don’t complain. Los follows behind me and before I can ask where we’re going, the question answers itself. The tunnel empties into a clearing surrounded by walls of brush and sparsely filled with dead trees. Shreds of grass attempt to grow in the rocky ground, a feeble attempt. Centered between two trees bent at the waist are the splintered remains of a carriage.
I swallow something heavy, the energy emanating from the debris is overwhelming and completely evil. Los glares at the split spokes, shattered windows and long washed away paint, hands tightened into fists at their sides. I know I need to get closer, but the energy is thick, like a suffocating wall that surrounds the carriage.
Los takes my hand, squeezing tight.
I return the pressure.
“We were moving to Levena. Ma, Roger and I. It was a hard trip, and we were so close, but it was a long ride. We came all the way from the southern regions, and Roger became … manic, towards the end. I never liked him, but spending time in the desolate lands did something to him, took the twisted parts of him and sharpened them to deadly points.”
Los exhales shakily, leaning into my side as they continue with a voice that is entirely small and childish. “We got lost, ran out of food, water. Roger was … he was so scary. Ma and I made a plan. We were going to leave when he fell asleep, take off on foot. He heard us though, and …”
Los shakes their head and I fold their body to my chest. When I was younger Los seemed so tall, but now I have a few inches on them. “It’s okay,” I say, rubbing their back like they did to me once. “You’re okay, Los, I’m right here.”
Los nods, clutching the leather across my shoulders. “He trapped all of us inside the carriage and just … took us all over the edge. Ma … she died instantly, broke her neck on the way down, but Roger and I weren’t that lucky. I fought him but … it wasn’t enough. I wasn’t enough.”
Los cries then, sobbing into my chest with all they have. I hold onto the ghost with all my might, humming softly to a song that I’ve come to love in the past few weeks. I don’t want to, but eventually I open my mouth and ask, “Roger?”
Los huffs out a shaky laugh. “He slipped on a rock and cracked his skull, not far from here. He’s not here, though. Ma either.” Los pulls away from my chest, staring up at me. “Why is that? Why am I alone?”
The same question I asked myself eleven years ago.
I tuck Los’ hair behind both their ears, swallowing. I don’t have the answers, only educated guesses. I give Los my best. “It sounds like Roger’s soul was destined for … somewhere else. Your Ma … Maybe she’s waiting for you, kind of like saving your seat.”
Los smiles through wet grief. “You really think so?”
“Yeah, I do.”
It doesn’t take me long to find Los’ body, and their mother’s. Los waited well outside the carriage which did not collapse on me like I thought it would. Surprisingly, and creepily, the structure hasn’t decayed at all and was quite sturdy underneath my considerable weight. The animals never bothered the bodies either, and why is not a question I can answer. Not sure if I want to, really.
I take off my jacket and spread it out on the once wood paneled floor, carefully piling their bones onto it. It takes some time, but I’m not in a rush. I want to do this right. Warmth, memories and electrifying energy travels beneath my skin. Flashes of their life breathe underneath my fingertips and I catch small glimpses. A laughing child with black hair thrown into the air by a mother with paint smudging her nose mix. Banana bread for birthdays. Funny faces and love, so much love.
By the time I return to Los pacing a good distance away from the carriage, early evening has fallen in our section of the world. Los stops in their tracks, eyes widening upon seeing the neatly bundled up jacket in my arms, and if possible, their face pales farther than before.
“You’re both here,” I say, kneeling on the ground and gently setting the bundle down. I stare up to Los. “Are you ready to find your mom?”
Los fidgets, staring at the dirt beside their wrapped up bones. “Will she want to find me?”
I stand, crossing the small distance to take Los’ hand. They squeeze my fingers, but don’t look up. “Why would you say that?”
Los sniffles, finally meeting my gaze. “Because I couldn’t save her. Save us. I couldn’t save us, kid.”
Once again, I embrace a ghost, allowing their untold troubles to flow into the wind as they unburden themselves for the journey ahead. My own tears escape this time, ones born of grief for the life Los so desperately deserved and was wrongfully deprived of and the time they spent alone. The tears aren’t just sad, though. They’re happy, for being able to bring Los home, to give back to the person who saved my life.
Without releasing Los, I close my eyes and draw upon my magick. It crawls along the surface of my skin, humming and crackling as the energy turns up and up and up. Behind Los’ back I bring my fingers together, moving them in a fluid series of conjurations that I’ve spent months practicing. Magick sparks, arcing from my fingers to the pile of leather and bones beside us, alighting the bundle instantly. Los gasps into my chest, fingers digging in my back.
“Kid, I’m warm.” Los whispers, words cracking on a laugh. “I’m finally warm!”
“Yeah?” I chuckle through hot tears. “That’s good, Los, real good. Okay, once the fire goes out, I’m going to open the veil. Are you ready?”
“Oh, wow, okay, yes, I’m ready.” Los nods furiously, pulling back from my chest. They don’t release me fully though, holding on tight to my hand.
We stare at the growing fire together, the flames a violent shade of green that would blind anyone else, but it’s mine, my magick, my power. Slowly, minute by minute, the fire recedes to a smoldering bed of coals. When the last emerald flame snuffs out, the air around us crackles with a new intensity. Ozone lines my nostrils and I inhale deeply, washing my throat in the energy tainted air. I return Los’ pressure on my palm and reach up into nothing with my free hand, fingers coming to a stop about eye level.
To others, there may be nothing, but I can see the wrinkled edge of this world, scrape at it with my fingernails. The first time I did this was an accident and I was almost lost to the Other Side, but I know better now. I pinch the crinkled fabric of the universe between my fingers, gently coaxing apart the folds of the veil that separates the worlds of Life and Death. Vivid, eye gouging color awaits on the other side, revealing a breathtaking, nature filled ravine that is much different than the one we stand in. The moment air whooshes out in a soft vacuum that makes my ears pop, Los bursts into laughter and tears.
“Ma!” Los cries, fingers loosening from mine.
“Not yet,” I say, and they renew their hold, looking up at me with a frown. I give Los a small smile. “You have to say goodbye, first.”
Los smiles back, a watery and beautiful thing. “It’s not goodbye, kid. See you later?”
I laugh a little, blinking away tears. “It’s Arlo, actually, and yeah. I’ll see you later.”
Los’ mouth drops, then they grin. Los reaches up and leaves a tender kiss on my cheek, lips turning up against my flushed skin and hint of patchy stubble.
Then my first friend releases my hand and steps through the tear in the world, leaving me behind. I smile, despite the bittersweet cracking of my heart.