I clear my throat and stand, then sit back down, because I don’t want to stand over him. He’s already so much shorter than me, I feel like a giant just sitting next to him. He tentatively presses a hand to my arm, lips parting, and I startle. He pulls back, not taking his eyes off me. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you nervous.”
“Oh, I’m not. Nervous, that is.”
Felix chuckles. “Okay. Well, you don’t have to make yourself smaller, for me.”
“Oh,” I say, then stand and straighten to my full height before him. The leaves and petals in my hair and along my skin stand to attention, and I blush at the image of preening like a fucking peacock.
“Wow,” Felix says, staring up at me with wide eyes. “You’re really tall.”
I almost lean down, but he takes my hand. This time, he doesn’t let go. “No, don’t.” Felix stands beside me, my hand in his. I stare down at our entangled fingers, then back to his face. His neck is craned and it looks painful, but the determination in his eyes is almost frightening.
I squeeze his hand, then let go. I put my hands up, smiling wide. “Okay, have it your way, tchotchke.”
Oh, how he smiles at that. He pretends to be affronted, but that smile. It’s perpetual, blinding. “I am not a small thing.”
I shrug, turning away from him. I bring my hands to chest level and smile upon coming up with an idea. I close my eyes and murmur, “Abracadabra.”
Have fun with swamp witches, chaos witches, root witches and musical witches. Just, all of the witchery and tomfoolery there ever could be. Happy Yuletide friends.
Welcome to Thitwhistle’s, a place where you can let your tail down and stretch your wings out. There’s Monster Hot Cocoa and sugar bombed pastries for the were-pups, we don’t mind fangs or claws.
There’s been a rumor that a well to do, mysterious investor just bought out the place and isn’t changing a thing. Except doubling what they bake, in order to account for their voracious appetite.
Why don’t you put your talons up and stay awhile? The Witches don’t bite.
Excerpt from Phantom and Rook.
We enter the open and spacious cafe section. The barista counters and refrigerated display cases are centered on a raised, half moon plaza that dominates the head of the cafe.
The once white tiles of the dias are painted cobalt and spattered with star dust clouded constellations. Vibrant colors of the night flow beneath our feet, extending into a river that swirls around the raised area and spreads out to blanket the rest of the wood floor in starry clouds.
The lapis astronomy theme accented by gold continues throughout the shop, much different from the earthy tones Mrs. Thitwhistle used, but I think it’s a rather nice touch. The lofty ceiling of the entire place is filled with golden galaxies and meteors, milky ways and dying planets. More paint detailing shows up in random places, the artist’s touch reaches every subtle inch of the room.
Lines of planets along the edge of a table, shooting stars over top of a curving window frame, explosive golden bursts of light that make my heart ache.
Curtains drape alongside each of the unique round windows facing the street, which are quite a few. The heavy, royal blue fabrics are embroidered in simple gold along the edges and match the upholstered lounge chairs and couches nestled by the fireplaces. Dual hearths rest on the east and west sides of the room, accompanied by chess boards, small tables, and the furniture which the college kids are currently taking advantage of.
Enormous groups congregate around both roaring fires, laughter rolls through the gossip and small talk thickens the warm atmosphere. Thitwhistle’s feels like someone’s grand study open to the public rather than a bookstore, complete with coffee beans and scones, and I’ve never felt more at home. The crowd is equal parts magickal beings and humans, young, old and everything in between.
There are a few older folks tucked into a corner, eyes crinkling and steam curling around mugs which hide their smiles. A set of half-shifted werewolf pups tug on their mother’s sleeve, begging for the ‘Monster Hot Cocoa’ complete with candy and whip cream on top. She rolls her eyes with a smile, in humanoid form, then orders three of the drinks and half a dozen donuts for the bus ride to Full Moons Field.
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?
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 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.”
Today’s witch is brought to you by the prompt Clock. Don’t forget to check out the other short stories.
There are some who say a clockwork heart does not beat, but I beg to differ.
As it has every day for the past seven (or eight) hundred years or so, the clock tower overlooking Full Moons Fields roars to life six times when the early morning hour strikes. A deafening gong, followed by two seconds of silence as the pendulum swings, then another gong as the clapper smashes into the other side of the bronze bell. Ropes sway up and down, trembling with the force of the sound.
I stand before the great clock face overlooking the east, watching the sun creep over the distant, gray horizon. I listen to the mechanisms of the turret clock behind me work, the ropes and gears working in tandem to create a semblance of control over such a fickle thing as time. I take a sip of my black coffee, sighing in content. I tuck the end of my quilted scarf back over my shoulder, dipping my nose beneath its warm fabric.
An ice storm rocks the atmosphere outside the tower, but the magick lining the glass face and metal hands keeps the clock from freezing over. While losing time would’ve been a catastrophe back in my early days, it’s not so much the case anymore. Everyone is in touch with everything, always. From the time, to tomorrow’s gossip and the news. Nevertheless, I’ll keep the clocktower running, same as I always have.
“Are you ready for work?” Lily asks, burrowed in the scarf cast across my shoulder. I chuckle, reaching up to rub the mouse’s forehead.
“Of course, little one.” I whisper to my only companion.
I turn away from the world outside my tower, descending the spiral staircase centered in the building. After several flights, I come to a stop at my workshop, still a few floors above the ground level. Upon entering, the overhead lights flick on, illuminating two halves to a giant space. On one side, neatly organized piles of sheet metal, coils of wire and oil spills reign. Work benches rest against the walls which are covered in pegboard, home to tools of every variety.
Partial droids wait on some tables, while others are empty or contain the opposite, which are nearly complete works. I choose such a table, setting my coffee mug down upon its worn and gouged surface. I remove my wire rimmed glasses and rub my sleep filled eyes, then set them back upon my nose. I immediately return to the problem I was elbows deep in last night, wiring through the vertebrae of a service droid.
Rain and ice slaps the windows and brick dominating the four sides of the tower. The hibernation stations housing my personal droids hum quietly and soft jazz pours from the cathedral style, cherry wood radio that had turned on with the lights. The saxophone and accompanying raspy harmony drowns out the overwhelming hollowness that stems from a certain type of silence.
One born from living alone, perpetually so.
I can’t remember the last time I took on a commission in person, let alone spoke to anyone aloud besides Lily. Another blessing and curse bestowed by technology, the ability for customers to place their orders and request maintenance on the droids or inventions they’ve already acquired, all without me having to actually speak to them. A drop off and pick up area staged at the base of the tower, followed by payment online, eliminates any need for social contact.
“I figured it out in my sleep last night, Lil. I have to reverse the flow of energy, that’s why the fuses were snapping.” I say, squinting as I undo the wires I had spliced together yesterday, then merge them in a new pattern.
“In your sleep, huh? Is that a dragon thing?” Lily teases, scampering down my arm until she hops off my ebony hand and onto the work table. She stays clear of the droid rattled this way and that, her tail twitching as she watches me work.
“No, just a me thing, dear.” I say, even though she already knows that.
A rather loud crash sounds from beneath us, startling Lily and I both. The sound echoes up the stairs in the center of the tower, followed by the slamming of a door and a string of curses. More thunderous destruction ensues and Lily and I exchange a look, then I sigh deeply.
I cross over to the intercom situated near the doorway, making it there at the same time the selth’s hysterical voicecomes through the system. “J-Josse! I n-need y-your help, p-please! It’s it’s it’s Floyd!”
“Get into the elevator,” I call down, pressing a series of buttons that activate the elevator system.
I clear off a table and collect the schematics for Floyd’s build, the papers worn by decades of time. I haven’t seen Bob and Floyd directly in years, and no news is good news I suppose, but then again, Floyd was my first. We’ve communicated via email and a long ago video call for Floyd’s annual checkup. Last I knew the droid was in tip-top shape, in good spirits and acclimating well to the move, not to mention living with Ren full time, Bob’s partner.
“Lil,” I start, but my familiar beats me to it, delivering a vial of bright purple liquid. I reach up to where she’s perched on my shoulder, taking the stored magick from her. I scratch between her ears with my forefinger, then she runs down my arm and onto the table. If memory serves me right, Bob has enough of this to last for a few more months, and there’s no way he’d let Floyd run dry, but I’ll get it ready just in case. The elevator dings and I hurry over, gasping at Bob and Floyd’s state.
The tips of the tentacles framing Bob’s face are blue, his overcoat is soaked through and stiff from the cold. His eyelashes are frozen over, nearly obscuring his onyx eyes. He shakes violently with Floyd’s unmoving form in his arms, his peachy face desperate. I rush over to him, gingerly taking Floyd from him.
“Here, sit here Bob,” I say, then give my attention to the hibernating droid in the corner that is remarkably sleeker and newer than Floyd is. “Barbara, can you prepare us a few cups of root tea, and gather some blankets for our guest?”
The humanoid automation blinks open their soft yellow eyes which matches their metallic golden complexion. Barbara nods, silently leaving her post in search of the kitchen nook occupying the other side of this level. Having food on the same floor as my work space is efficient, as is the hammock I frequently sleep in that neighbors the kitchen.
“You’re foolish, Bob. This could’ve waited until the storm passed.” I chastise, and the selth shoots me glare, like I knew he would. I can still remember the day Bob commissioned Floyd. The selth was young and offered me his life savings, (which was admittedly not very much) and I accepted his bizarre request.
Unlike my other inventions, Floyd was never meant to be of service. He was always intended to be Bob’s companion, his friend. Perhaps that is what made Floyd different. I gave him a higher purpose, thought of him as a person, not a machine.
Nevertheless, I haven’t been able to replicate anything, or anyone, close to Floyd.
“He was doing fine, one minute we were wrapping presents for Ren, and then the next he just … collapsed.” Bob whispers, watching as I gently remove the panel of his friend’s back. As I bring a voltage tester to Floyd’s solar batteries, Bob shakes his head. “I already did that. I wouldn’t have bothered you if I didn’t try everything first.”
I raise a brow at the selth. “And his magick tank?”
“Full, I triple chickled.” Bob says, tentacles slowly coming to life as he takes a mug from Barbara and thanks them. Barbara bows their head, then returns to their station. Bob turns his attention back to me, breaking voice dropping a strained octave. “Is he going to be okay, Josse? What’s wrong with him?”
I adjust my glasses, then remove my scarf and wrap it around Bob’s shoulders. I gently pat his cheek, giving him a smile. “He’ll be fine, just you see.”
Twelve hours later, and Floyd is far from fine.
Bob fell into a fitful sleep in his chair shortly after dinner. He never left Floyd’s side as I essentially tore his friend to pieces, eliminating possibilities as I went. Barbara and Lily reminded me to take care of myself throughout the day, and I ate at regular intervals begrudgingly. As the day has gone on, the more irritated I’ve become.
“There’s something I’m missing,” I mutter, again.
“You need to take a break, you’re looking too hard.” Lily says, from atop a small piece of trim framing the windows, overlooking the ice wrought city.
I rub at my forehead, grimacing. “I can’t. I’ve updated all his systems, refreshed his batteries and injected him with a steroidal dose of magick, checked his wiring. By all rights, there’s nothing wrong with him, so why isn’t he waking up?”
I groan, and my frustration morphs into a low, timbre-filled growl. I only break humanoid form once a year, but the way I’m feeling right now is enough to trigger a wave of scales shifting beneath my soft flesh. I settle for a compromise, joining Lily at the windows and only putting a small amount of distance between Floyd and I.
An eerie calm has washed over the world outside our tower, the silence is deafening after hours of violent precipitation. No one dares to peek outside their homes until the layer of thick ice has either melted away or been taken care of by the local winter crews, lending further to a ghost town atmosphere. Yule lights no longer twinkle over storefronts and homes, evergreen wreaths have been tugged from their lamp posts, haphazardly blown into the streets with other decorations that are no longer festive but depressing.
It hits me, then.
Tomorrow is Yule, and poor Bob and Floyd are stuck here with me instead of at home, enacting traditions with Ren. The thread of guilt weaving through my heart frays even further and I sigh. Is Floyd’s lifelessness due to my old age; my magick isn’t what it used to be?
Even so, he should be turning on and functioning like a, a, … a droid without a consciousness. My magick does nothing but fuel the minds of my creations, and for most, like Barbara, it’s nothing more than a sort of basic intelligence. No emotions or memories, only an awareness and knowledge of the world, and a desire to serve.
My heart thrums oddly in its cage and I rub at my sternum, brows furrowing. The Full Moons bell a few floors above us chants the arrival of the seventh hour, allowing a two second reprieve before it gongs again, then again, and again, thrusting an idea into my chest with each reverberating announcement.
After hours upon hours of hard work, burns to my fingertips, and a near shift into full white dragon form, I gently shake Bob’s shoulder. He startles awake violently, of course, with tentacles flapping and an indignant snort escaping from his hidden lips.
“What’s happened?! Is he alright? How long have I been sleeping?” Bob asks in a whirlwind, jumping up to standing, then stumbling backwards into his chair.
“Calm down, friend, it’s only been a few hours. I think I may have cracked the problem, but I need your help.” I say, gently helping Bob to his feet. A full tapestry of night has fallen over the windows and half the lights in the lab have switched off, providing a warm and cozy atmosphere.
“Okay,” Bob scrubs a hand over his face, nodding absently. “What do you need me to do?”
“Come with me,” I say, leading Bob over to the table I’ve laid Floyd out on, the accordion panels of his metallic chest folded back and exposing a large, hollow chamber.
“Oh, Floyd,” Bob whispers, running a hand over the droid’s forehead. Bob is anything but graceful, however the gentleness he reserves for his friend is astounding. Bob looks up to me, onyx eyes glistening. “Why is his chest open? I didn’t know it could do that.”
I nod sagely, standing by his side. “It took some fabrication, but a necessary step, for this.” I reach into my knitted cardigan’s pocket, retrieving the mechanism that took me far longer to create than the fabrication job on Floyd’s chest. Bob’s eyes widen when I deposit a palm sized, brass anatomical heart into his large, cold hands.
He cradles it like he would a babe, kind and careful.
A tentacle reverently traces over the lattice framework protecting the atriums and ventricles of the heart, then follows up and down the gleaming arteries, across the curve of the aortic arch. Stagnant gears and cogs hide inside the chambers of the mechanism, waiting for something to engage them.
Bob looks up to me and asks, “What is this?”
I smile at the selth, cupping his cheek in my hand. “Something I’ve been working on aimlessly for quite some time, didn’t really know why, but I couldn’t stop thinking about a mechanical heart. Now, I think I know why.”
Bob leans into my palm, staring up at me. “I don’t understand, droids don’t need hearts.”
“Well, Floyd’s not just any automation, is he?” I say quietly, and Bob nods once, tentacles and fingers quivering. “We’ll start it together, alright?”
I blanket Bob’s hands with my own, gently closing his fingers over the device. Magick swells, cascading out of the flesh and blood heart inside my chest, rushing through my veins and arteries until the energy meets the capillaries in my hands. Power seeps into Floyd’s hands, intermingling with his life force before drifting down into the brass. Metal calls to my energy like a magnet, metallurgy has been my specialty since the day magick burst to life in my body.
“All I need you to do is think … Think of all the things that make Floyd, Floyd. Think about how much you love him, how much Ren loves him, how much he means to you.” I say softly, and Bob heaves out a shuddering breath.
“He likes pancakes. Not eating them, obviously, but he likes the smell of them, how the little bubbles burst on the uncooked side. He loves to help Ren in the shop, I think it gives him a purpose, you know? Now that my … side hustle isn’t going on anymore, and besides, all the people love Floyd. Ren says there’s been more customers coming in, all thanks to Floyd’s hospitality and how he arranges the displays a different way every day. He always makes sure the candles in the windows at home are lit at night, and that my coffee and Ren’s tea is ready in the morning. Oh, he has a cat now, too, did you know that? He named it Fluffy Paws, how original, right?”
Magick thrums in time to Bob and I’s heartbeats synchronized to the tick tick tick of the turret clock resting a few levels above us. A tender, soft and not overtly bright white glow surrounds our hands. Bob’s voice cracks and he sniffles, loud and wet.
“More than anything, he’s such a good friend, better than any selth deserves. He rubs my back when I’m sick, and he doesn’t mind that I fall all the time, or that I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed or that I have funny tentacles. Floyd is always there for me, no matter what.”
Something clicks in my heart, and I whisper, “L’hachiyot.”
A plume of thick magick explodes from our joined hands, immediately dousing the entire lab in a white fog. Bob startles and I inhale sharply, waiting for the inevitable crash.
But he doesn’t fall.
He doesn’t fumble the heart.
He doesn’t cry out.
He remains rock steady, for Floyd.
Magick fades and I blink several times, finding Bob doing the same. He shakes in place, hands trembling beneath mine. He opens and closes his mouth, then tries again. “Did it work?”
“Let’s have a look,” I say, because I’m honestly not sure.
Ever so gently, I open Bob’s hands to reveal the mechanical heart.
Not beating at all.
“No, I’ll be home soon my love, I won’t leave you alone on Yule morning. I … I just need a little bit more time with him. Yeah, okay, I will, I’ll see you in a little bit.”
Bob’s murmured words of comfort seep from the kitchen and into the silent lab, where I sit beside Floyd’s body, alone. I sigh, staring at the heart nestled into Floyd’s chest. I had thought maybe it wouldn’t beat until it was in his body, but even after connecting the organ to the necessary systems, it rests quiet and cold in the corpse of Bob’s friend, of my first creation. I never had children, but Floyd is close enough to a descendent that my heart aches.
“How did I fail you, dear friend?” I murmur, caressing Floyd’s metallic eyelids. “When Bob came to me and asked for a companion, I must admit that I never expected you. I knew you would be highly intelligent, yes, but … You care for Bob, and really everyone you encounter, I can feel it in your bones. Your feelings … Your memories, emotions, they lay just beneath your surface.”
I’m fairly certain I could extract the intangibilities of Floyd through their metallic complexion, but I won’t desecrate him like that.
“I somehow created exactly what I needed, too, now that I think about it. I needed someone to carry on my legacy, to hold a piece of myself inside them. Seeing Bob with you, it’s more than I could’ve ever hoped to achieve. You have done well, dear Floyd. You have been a loyal companion, a loving friend, much more than most breathing beings are. But,”
My hand rests over his warm heart.
“You can’t leave, not just yet. Your life is only beginning, you have a family to tend to, people who love you and need you. I need you, Floyd. I need you to remind me how much people need people, whether they be metal or flesh.”
Tick Thump Tick Thump Tick
The warm— oh Gods, it’s warm– heart thuds once under my hand.
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.
In honor of October, my favorite month, I’ve decided to participate in Witchtober. A friend of mine actually suggested it for their art, and I thought ‘how cool would it be to make a short story for each prompt?’
So that’s what I did.
I’ve been struggling what to name the ‘Phantom and Rook series’, because yes there will be more books, and these short stories gave me an idea. Adventures in Levena. These stories will be canonically set in my Phantom and Rook world, the Nether Isles, but you won’t need to have read Phantom and Rook to know what’s going on. The stories are mostly centered around new characters in situations that have nothing to do with the book, or are main characters just living in their world.
Without further ado, meet Arche, the witch inspired by the first prompt, Lunar.
“I said two degrees to the right! Come now, I haven’t all night. We have one shot at this.” I smash my cigarette into an ashtray and peer into an eyepiece, shouting from my vantage point down to the soul below.
“Sorry Mr. Arche sir, right away sir!” Raphael works from behind his desk, sending codes to the rotating platform supporting the telescope and myself. Inch by inch the platform turns and once it settles, I check our position once more. The wards separating Raphael’s roarous thoughts from my mind tremble and I lift fingers to my mouth, but there’s no filter clutched between them.
“Excellent, and no more of that sir and mister nonsense.” I add firmly, standing and rolling out my neck, then dutifully light up another cigarette. “I’ve told you that a hundred times,” I mutter, staring up at the open ceiling of the astronomy dome. To the naked eye, the silver moon is but a distant behemoth greedily hiding away my lifelong aspiration.
“Fire up the inverter and begin the countdown!” I call, hurriedly making my way down the stairs with the lit cigarette hanging out of my mouth.
I adjust my fingerless leather gloves, then my black vest. I rake my hair back, fingers scraping against the shaved undersides. My spine tingles with anticipation, the amount of kinetic magick buzzing through the atmosphere as the engines power on is enough to intensify my migraine. When I join Raphael’s side, I find the intern staring at an unassuming button. His eyes drag to my face, crinkling in distaste at the cigarette between my lips. He doesn’t complain about them aloud, but it’s clear he dislikes them.
“Are you sure this is a good idea? We have no idea what’s up there, or how magick works in space. I understand your work in theory and I truly admire it, but are we really about to do this?” Raphael asks, and I’ll give him credit for staring me right in the eyes.
Most people don’t, as if making eye contact will reveal all their secrets to me in an instant. It can, but I don’t make a habit of leaving myself open to endless useless thoughts and dramatics. Besides, I don’t need to read minds to know he’s being genuine. Of course he’s not the most perfect assistant, but he’s marginally more effective than the past few I’ve had, he challenges my mind and cares about the work, or so I thought.
I chuckle, sliding my hands into my pockets to hide their tremor. “And you’ve waited until now to come clean because?”
Raphael chews on his bottom lip, looking away when I don’t dispute his concerns. “I didn’t think we’d make it this far.”
Honestly, that hurts. “Ah, because I’m insane, right?”
Raphael winces. “I didn’t–”
I wave him off, bored of this. “You didn’t have to, I have ears. I know what they all think of me. Crazy, carnal, weird. I also know what we’re about to accomplish will set us apart from those who never dare to try. Don’t you want to be known as the man who turned the immovable silver moon? Revealed its secrets for the world to share? If you’d like to leave, then by all means, there’s the door. But you know it just as well as I do, this is a moment, and you’ve contributed so much, Raphael.”
Raphael’s eyes widen at his name, something I now realize I haven’t said enough. His hands tighten into fists in his lap and he glares at the small red button. As I watch him consider, the ache in my heart lessens. He believes in me, he does, and it doesn’t matter that I’m a vampire, a witch, a person who doesn’t know how to hold what some call meaningful conversation.
But like all the rest, he hurries out of the room, slamming the door shut behind him.
I butt my forgotten and ash ridden cigarette into a tray resting on the control panel, then gently press the red button. “Tch,” I whisper, not at all surprised or bothered that he left.
Not at all.
The inverter powers on, overwhelming the astronomy tower with a hum that rattles my bones. The magick in my blood sings in unison with the decades worth of stored Teleth power coming to life. Enormous gears work alongside the telescope I’ve spent the latter half of my life constructing. A blood red glow surrounds the brass works, the color amplified by steam hissing from vents in the construction. I study the vast projection of the full double moons cast on the main stretch of white wall, a replica of the telescope’s view. Precise movements require the eyepieces, but for grand shows I can see what I need to from here. A fiendish grin overtakes my face as the countdown initiates.
“5.” I wonder if Da is watching from wherever he is. I look over my shoulder, briefly wondering if the other astrophysics professors are watching. Of course, there’s no one.
“4.” A high pitched whining emits and a ray of red light penetrates through the sky, faint at first. I’ll make you proud, Da. I’ll find the man left behind on the silver moon.
“3.” The crimson beam strengthens in intensity and an alarm blares, rattling my eardrums. My attention flashes down to the controls and a gauge spinning wildly out of control. Fuck, it’s overheating. No, no, no, not again, not this time.
“2.” I flick a switch, redirecting the backup reserves of water magick I’ve spent a year collecting through donations to the cooling system.
“1.” Vents squeal and metal shrieks, a cloud of steam escapes and violently fills the astronomy tower.
Everything dies. The lights, the power, the screens.
I start out the next morning with a harassment report, transfer request and a disaster of an astronomy tower. Dante, the only person in this damn place who seems to tolerate me, brings me coffee at ten, just like he always does. Raphael usually anoints me with my first cup of caffeine at eight am, but he’s not here anymore. I can’t deny that the prospect of coffee has me jittering in place.
The angel steps over piles of warped clutter, wings spelled away as he dodges pieces of metal flying through the air. I rip and tear the sheeting off the side of the telescope from high up on the scaffolding. Through the smoke rolling from the death stick hanging out of my mouth, I stare my problem in the face. Dante climbs up the metal stairs and sits down heavily on the platform beside me, feet dangling over the edge. I take the coffee he offers with a noncommittal grunt, eyes dashing across his face briefly.
“Wow, you look like shit today.” Dante states the obvious, gesturing to my rolled up sleeves, dirty forearms, rumpled vest and stained dress slacks. He’s not wrong, I never went home last night. He wrinkles his nose. “And reek like my abi’s ashtray.”
“You say that every day.” I say, turning my attention back to the broken and violently burnt mechanism once hidden. I rifle through perfectly preserved and organized details, closing my eyes to better access the room in my mind full of boxes. Boxes of files, files which contain memories and information, relevant and otherwise. I flinch upon finding the error, how I missed it before I don’t know.
“That’s a cooling compressor, isn’t it?” The papers between us rustle as Dante satisfies his curiosity. “Kind small, ain’t it? For that amount of force you’ll need–”
“5.5k EMU per device, yes I know. I need another one. Fuck, how did I miss this.” I scrub at my face, then take a tentative sip of coffee. It’s perfect, overly creamed and sweet, like always. “Now the scope’s systems are all fried, and I have to recode everything from scratch.”
“You mean Raphael does.” Dante points out with a mischievous grin and I glare at him. He puts his large hands up. “What? Isn’t that what interns are for?”
I shake my head. “No more interns. He’s the reason I’m in this mess, it was his math. I became … complacent, so I stopped checking the numbers. Besides, he’s gone anyway.” I wave off the idea, cheeks absolutely not heating. “I’ll do it myself.”
“How long did this one last, six weeks? Damn, nearly the whole summer at that!” Dante laughs, exposing miles worth of dimples as he takes out his phone. He types into what I’m assuming is the group chat between him and all the other science professors, sans me. “That’s a record. You made me some good money on him. Ah, suppose he’ll be joining my less cool classes.”
I light up a cigarette, giving the male a withering look. “I don’t appreciate you betting on how long it takes to terrify my interns. At least cut the pool with me, and … be nice to him.”
Dante scoffs, temporarily abandoning his coffee in favor of pulling his long, snow white hair back. For a brief moment, I wonder if his wings match the color. “How can we do that if you’re not getting another one? We can play it to our favor,” His voice lilts at the end and a small smile escapes me.
I chuckle. “You find someone willing to work with, what was the latest one… Oh yes, Professor Witches a Lot, or my personal favorite, that ‘fucking crazy asshole locked up in the tower’, and I’ll gladly rig the game with you.”
Dante grins, and it’s evil. “Oh, I’ve got someone in mind.”
I take another sip of my coffee, mildly intrigued. “Cheers to that then. What do we say, two days until I chase him away?”
Dante stands, laughing as he does. “Let’s try a week, can’t have the fun be over too quickly.”
I shoo him away and finish my coffee, half listening.
I have work to do.
I spend the day cleaning up my mess, emptying and filling ash trays, and pacing around the telescope. The overhead ceiling is wide open, allowing an unobstructed view of a twilight sky dotted with the faint corpses of planets. I stare up at the constellations as they come into view, thinking of Da. In a way I always do, he’s constantly there in the back of my mind, telling me how lonely it is to live on a rock that doesn’t spin, faced with endless darkness. He spoke with such surety, such detail that I could never dismiss it as a fable.
As the golden moon that spins a little each night pulls its smaller, glittering silver brethren high into the sky, I watch. I find myself standing still, for perhaps hours, watching as the moons come up. There is a small part of me that knows everyone else is right. I’m insane. Have to be.
Who else stands in one place for stretches of time as the universe turns overhead, watching for a sign? Waiting for evidence that someone is up there, someone needs help. My help.
“I’ll do it one day, Da. I’ll go up there and meet the Man on the Moon. I’ll bring him home.” I stood a little taller, snowshoes pushing against a packing of snow that composed the last winter my father saw.
He smiled at me then, hand raising to rest on my head like he always did when I had pleased him, but he didn’t have to reach down now. In fact, he had to reach up, for I was taller than him. “I never said there was a Man on the Moon, just a person.”
I tilted my head, wondering how or when I had decided such a thing. “I have a feeling.”
And oh, how he smiled.
I jolt upright, heart pounding in anticipation and releasing toxic amounts of terrified magick through my veins. Energy lashes out, instantly mapping my surroundings. I relax somewhat at the realization it’s Dante calling me, but the rest is blurry. I scrub at my face, wrinkling my nose at the sensation of hair tickling my lips. I rake it back, frowning as I come upon snarls and grease from running my hands through the tousled length so much yesterday.
Desk. I’m at my desk, a tingling sensation swarming through the side of my face. My sticky face. I frown, reaching up to pull a piece of paper off my sweaty cheek. Ah, the calculations I was working on last night. Absently, I solve the last equation whilst studying the paper, then set it down. I smooth out the wrinkles of my now … three? days old shirt and frown down at my slacks, colored with ashes, coffee, grease and soot.
Dante’s clearly amused, rumbling laughter behind me is accompanied by a small sound, not a whimper, but almost like a restrained squeak. I sigh, searching my pockets for my cigarettes before turning around and dealing with whoever he has paraded in here with the intent of torturing them. “I assume it’s Monday, again.” I say over the stick in my mouth, inhaling greedily when it lights.
“Tuesday, actually. I assumed you were ignoring my texts, but I can see now that’s not the case. Would you like us to come back?” The angel casually says, but underlying the words is a friendly taunt. If I say yes, I’ll be fueling the fire I’m sure he’s building, kindled with sticks that read, ‘I told you that you’re overworking yourself.’
I stand, using the desk for purchase, and inhale another long drag before turning around. I exhale smoke and words are there too, but they shrivel on my tongue upon seeing my guest. For the first time in decades, I choke on my nicotine, and it burns. I swiftly turn back around, hacking up a lung as I stamp out my cigarette. I don’t miss Dante’s knowing laughter and am able to manage out a ‘fuck off.’
Another small, breathless sound mixes with Dante’s amusement and once I recover, I turn and find the person is laughing at me, too. It’s silent, bright nonetheless, and my heart aches, surely from my coughing fit.
“I was not anticipating visitors,” I glance around, noticing the mess I had cleaned up yesterday has been expertly replaced by more clutter. Ironically, the state of my tower bothers me more than my clothes, and the smell wafting from beneath them. “Dante, introductions?” I ask, clipped but not unkind, hopefully.
Dante recovers, patting the man beside him on the shoulder who sheepishly continues to smile at me, eyes never leaving mine. I have to look away from him, afraid those thin pools of mercury will suffocate me. “This is Io Litsvim, a transfer student from the Obelisk of Gia’s Magickal Physics program.”
The name rings a bell, I remember coming across it on the upcoming fall semester’s roster for three of my classes, all graduate level and begrudgingly populated, not to mention Astronomical Magick is infamous for reducing some students to tears. The endless, multi-dimensional math and research gives me a headache, too, but it’s vital. Magick, new and alternate worlds, fate, science, it’s all connected. It’s real. There’s a factual reason for why life as we know it exists, for everything.
I just have to find it.
My inner philosophy narrative lasts less than ten seconds before I file it away, pack it in a box, then fully evaluate Io Litsvim with fresh lungs and new eyes. Obelisk of Gia is well known for their scholars and frankly, Scarlet University isn’t as well funded, not as … dedicated to the pursuit of science as Gia is. Between that and Io’s choice of course load, my courses, it’s clear he thinks he’s smart, but he could be the son of a nobleman and pushed through science because it’s ‘trendy.’ He holds his head high and wears a shy smile no matter how hard my gaze penetrates him, searching for weaknesses.
He doesn’t flinch, doesn’t look away.
Io wears black framed glasses that rest on round ears, his skin is pale and slightly wrinkled around the edges like mine and vastly freckled, unlike mine. The markings are so dense, small and scattered it’s as if he bathed in a cloud of stardust, and his hair adds to the effect. It’s thick, relatively smooth given the wildness of it. Russet, almost burnt orange and earthy green drift around his face, undertones of a dusky twilight brush against his shoulders. I can’t help but notice his teeth are perfect behind that unyielding smile, save for a crooked incisor.
He’s wearing an admittedly beautiful sweater, azure and silver yarn shimmers under the fluorescent lights, the universe across his chest contrasts the … sterileness of the place around us. His jeans are … tight, and not at all what I expect a physics student to be wearing. Honestly, none of him makes sense. He feels … fae almost, but looks human and something completely other. My fingers twitch with contemplation, but I immediately bury the thought. I don’t read minds, not without permission, not if I can help it.
My study of Io must have lasted longer than ten seconds, because Dante smirks at me in a way that ruffles my feathers more than they already are. I inhale sharply, extending my hand to Io Litsvim with the standard, paper cut out introduction I give to everyone. “Hello, I am Arche Caeleste, Professor of Magickal Physics, specializing in Astronomical Magick.”
What I don’t say to everyone is, “I’m glad to have you in the program.”
Io smiles when he slides his hand into mine, fingers brushing against the pads of mine and palm meeting the heated leather covering my rough skin. He firmly shakes my hand, then releases me without a word. Before I can reply, he brings his hands to chest level and asks me a question, signing it out.
My heart tightens, it’s been years since I’ve spoken to anyone in sign. At first I worry I won’t remember, but I understand him perfectly.
“I’m glad to have met you, but I’m surprised.”
I can’t help but laugh a little, surprising myself and Dante. Then, I surprise Io by responding with touching my fingers to my forehead and curling my middle fingers in as I pull my hand away, forming a Y of sorts with my hand.
Io tilts his hand back and forth, not an exact sign but a clear ehh gesture with a wide, slightly crooked smile which blinds me. “I expected a test, hoops, or something.”
I don’t know why, but I laugh.
I laugh with a vengeance I haven’t felt in years. Besides Dante, when was the last time someone was this blunt with me? Wasn’t afraid to do so?
I bury my hands in my pockets, ignoring the twitch in my fingers. I tilt my head at Io, encouraging greasy strands to fall over my eyes. “How do you know there wasn’t one?”
“I suppose I don’t.” Io signs, shrugging. He glances at Dante and I blink rapidly, remembering him all at once and shifting uncomfortably.
“I’ll finish the tour with Io while you acquaint yourself with a shower, maybe a bed?.” Dante offers, tone casual with a raised brow.
“Oh, yes. Why don’t you come back tomorrow, Io? I’ll be ready for you tomorrow.” I say, using the sign for moon when referring to Io. After doing so, he arrests me with another wide smile.
“Are you sure?” He asks, bouncing back and forth on the balls of his toes and heels.
I nod. “Yes, I’m sure.”
I was … not ready for Io Litsvim.
He hums all the time, wears colorful sweaters and bounces on his heels while he does math, constantly moving and making noise but no words. I found myself watching him quite often, which in turn makes Io stiffen and attune to silence without a single word from me. For the first time, I dislike how my presence affects others and I wish for easy conversation. During the first week we worked together, I tried to be … considerate, but given that I rarely take care of myself most days, I find it difficult to accommodate his needs.
Not that he’s ever asked for anything.
Io hasn’t asked many questions at all, actually. On the first day he introduced me to his current thesis on the possibilities of inter-dimensional travel, a topic even well seasoned tenure professors won’t touch, me included. I walked him through the lab and explained the telescope’s capabilities and current problems, which he took to solving within minutes, all without having to order a new part. That was the most we’ve talked I think, the rest of the days have been spent recalibrating the system and cleaning my admittedly disastrous lab.
Today though, my hands shake.
I enter the warmly lit tower, another key difference since Io’s arrival. Raphael always met me at the door with coffee, waiting for me to open the door to our dark tower even though he has, had, a key. I frequently insisted he didn’t have to wait for me, but he always did. I rub at my heart, frowning at the painful sensation creeping under my rib cage. I make a note to text Dante, see if he knows what became of Raphael. He was … is a genius, I’d hate to see him fail this year because of me. He stayed through the summer, worked hard and kept me alive.
I find Io in a rolling desk chair, my chair, grinning wide with his hands out as he spins and spins and spins. I stop just inside the doorway, watching him as he giggles and laughs whole-heartedly. Curiosity has teased my lips several times, but I haven’t asked him why he doesn’t speak. It’s clear that he can vocalize, he giggles when he has to correct my math and I flush, and when I smoke more than four death sticks in a row he voices his disapproval. I swear I’ve caught the edge of a whispered word in an unfamiliar language, and he …
He sings sometimes, if you can call it that. I do. When he thinks I’m not noticing, he hums and … I don’t know, perhaps the noises aren’t words at all but they have a cadence to them, a rhythm where whatever it is he’s softly releasing is harmonious and nice. Not unlike how Raphael would hum under his breath when he thought I wasn’t looking.
I’m a terrible person, aren’t I? What is it that I do that encourages people to sing when I’m not looking?
Nonetheless, I don’t mind signing with him at all, it reminds me of Da and … and Father.
Gods, I haven’t allowed myself to think of him for years. More specifically, the time when it was all three of us and we were happy. I was so young that the memories are blurred but unrelenting, a distressing combination. Not to say Da and I weren’t happy … after, but it wasn’t the same.
I clear my throat and leave the safety of the doorway, startling Io so hard he falls out of his chair, head lolling in dizziness. I rush to his side, my vampiric speed allows my hand to cradle his head before it smacks on the cement floor. Io stares up at me with dazed eyes and a shy grin, fingers clutching my biceps.
When I don’t say anything, his smile starts to fade and I grasp for something witty, that’s what people do, isn’t it?
“You spun sixty eight times without stopping.” I say, immediately regretting my detached, factual words.
To my relief, Io laughs. He laughs so hard it echoes off the tower walls and escapes through the open dome ceiling all at once, there’s so much of it that nothing can contain it, not even the sky. I chuckle, heart warming as I help Io to his feet. Our laughter awkwardly fades away, but his smile doesn’t, and I’m pleasantly surprised to find one on my face, too.
“Good morning,” Io says, then motions for me to sit at the desk where two cups of coffee wait, both steaming. He’s had the lights on, coffee ready for me every morning thus far, and I like it.
“That it is,” I say aloud, then take a seat and sip my coffee, going through today’s plan with him in sign, substituting voice for sign with more technical words that I’ve been working on but haven’t mastered yet. Thus far, I haven’t walked him through the intricacies of my project, given what I actually want to do isn’t on paper. For a brief moment, it occurs to me that I should be afraid, I don’t know this man. Raphael and all my previous interns signed an NDA and were thoroughly vetted to ensure they committed to this.
None of them were, proving the process to be faulty.
“Can I ask a question?” Io draws me from my thoughts and I nod, going to take a sip of my coffee but finding it gone already. I frown, setting the mug down in favor of a cigarette. He rolls his eyes at me and I snort.
“Unless it’s to stop with these, then I’m afraid not. They won’t kill me, so don’t waste your time.” I flinch the second I shut my mouth. I had meant to come off as teasing or something of the sort, but no, I’m just an asshole.
But Io doesn’t seem phased. In fact, he rolls his eyes at me. “Give me more credit than that. No, I want to know what we are doing. You have a telescope that can determine one pebble from another with such accuracy it’s terrifyingly impressive, but you’re not looking for anything on the gold moon, everything is focused on the smaller, less impressive silver moon, some would say. But even then, there’s no pictures, no data samples. This doesn’t feel like a research project to me.”
I take a long drag of my cigarette, contemplating Io. He straightens in his chair, but otherwise doesn’t remove his gaze from me. He stares into my eyes and my fingers twitch with curiosity, but I reign my magick back. There’s something about him that’s wholly familiar and startlingly exotic to my world all at once. Even Dante has commented that ‘this one seems different,’ and I’m inclined to think he’s right, but there’s … I don’t know, something that’s holding me back.
“What do you know of the dark side of the moon?”
Io’s cheeks flush immediately and he adjusts his glasses, ducking his head. He glances back up at me, revealing the slightest bit of cool mercury and an unreadable expression. “That no one has seen it, and any satellites sent up there are lost.”
This is the part where they laugh, run, or stay.
I’ve been laughed at many times and my skin has grown thick, but if Io does, I’m afraid it just may sting.
I nod, treading in a whisper that speeds with my thinly veiled excitement. “I have reason to believe there is someone living up there, and I’m going to prove it. Not only that, but I’m going to reveal the dark side of the moon for everyone to see. When it comes to light that there is a person abandoned up there, all alone … Someone will be sent for them, and they won’t have to be alone anymore. It’s a win-win for everyone. For fame, for accreditation, for morality.”
Io and I have leaned forward in our chairs, inadvertently rolling ourselves closer to each other. He studies me, frowning for the first time since I’ve met him. “How can you be so sure? I can see that you truly believe this, but why?”
I open my hands, staring into my leather covered palms and bare finger tips untainted by ink and grease. This is where I spew logic and myth and years worth of hypotheses, enough scientific jargon to get them in the door. Only Raphael never asked me why. When I told him what I wanted to do, he enthusiastically said yes without question.
“Because I have to,” I admit, so quiet I’m not even sure the words actually even escaped. I chance a look up at Io, and his softened features tell me everything. Such a vulnerable look would usually trigger my defenses and the need to flee, but I don’t. I don’t.
I say, “I can’t leave them alone.”
Io’s pale fingers meet mine tentatively, his skin slowly brushes against mine and when I don’t pull away, he takes both my hands in his, never breaking eye contact. I inhale sharply and my magick thrums beneath my skin, vibrating and pulsing and wanting.
His pupils dilate and he squeezes my hands, the only indication he noticed my power greeting him, then releases me just as slowly as he took me. With one hand he says, “Ok.”
I nod, chancing a smile. “Okay.”
After that, I explain everything to him. The tractor beam, the magick engines, how we’ll need to prepare the telescope and the potential consequences for my actions.
I brush off such things. “As long as we succeed, that’s all that matters. You won’t be subject to any investigations, you have my word. Besides, it’s not like I’m planning on keeping the moon this way, could you imagine what would happen?”
Io shrugs. “You break a plate and put it back where you found it, but it’s still broken.”
I arch a brow. “Do you disagree with me?”
He laughs. “Of course I do.”
I frown, lighting up another cigarette. “Then why did you agree?”
Io’s laughter transforms into a deadly grin. “Because I believe you.”
“Oh.” I say, because what else can I say? My throat dries up and I go for coffee, but it’s long gone. I take a drag from my cigarette and instantly regret it, subsequently stubbing out the stick. I stand abruptly and Io stares up at me through his earthy hair, a smirk playing at his lips. “Thank you, um, thank you for that. I am not … I’m not good with these things, so don’t expect praise or anything like that. I hear that I’m terrible to work with. In general if I say nothing, that’s good.”
Io chuckles as he signs, “Consider me warned.”
I nod, neck hot. “Excuse me for a moment. Why don’t you get started on today’s problem at hand? We need to make sure the math is right, and we both know you’re better at it than me, just like–”
I abruptly cut off, shaking my head. Io’s smile fades and something sad swims in his eyes and I ache at the sight of it. “Well, go ahead. I’m just going to check on something.”
I turn away before I can embarrass myself anymore, stalking off to the nearby scaffolding surrounding the telescope. I stop at the bottom stair, pulling out my phone. I find Dante and call him, keeping my voice down.
“We have seven more weeks, don’t tell me you’ve scared him off already.” Dante pouts as a way of answering and I grumble in response.
“Good morning to you, too. And Io is doing fine, thanks for asking. I actually had a question.”
“Must be pretty important if you’re actually using your phone, and for a call no less.” Dante yawns over the line.
I huff and roll my eyes even though he can’t see me. “Forget it.”
“Oh come on now, I’m just teasing. What do you need?”
My lips itch for a cigarette but I resist, for now. “How has Raphael been adjusting? I know it’s only the first week of classes, but I … You know what, never mind, it’s not my business, I’m not his teacher anymore.”
“Arche,” Dante cuts through my nonsense firmly, but not unkindly. “You have his number, why don’t you shoot him a text?”
I balk at that, sputtering indignantly. “Oh, I’m sure that’s not appropriate, I only had it in case of emergency and I … doubt he wants to hear from me, honestly.”
Dante chuckles. “But you still have it? His number?”
I growl at my so-called friend. “Good bye, Dante.”
“See you at ten,” Dante says, laughing as he cuts the call.
I stare at my unlocked phone, the wallpaper something Raphael had chosen for me when he set this device up. For all my worldly knowledge, the technicalities of phones escape me. I open up a message thread, adding Raphael’s name because yes I still have his number. I type, erase, and type again for several minutes, eventually coming up with the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever written and have been thinking about the sentiment since he left.
Good Morning Raphael. I wanted to apologize for my behavior, not just for the day you left, but for the weeks before it as well. Without your help, ideas and genius I would’ve gotten stuck long ago, and for that I would like to add, or keep, rather, your name on the accreditations. If you are uncomfortable with this I will not, but I feel you deserve it. I know I am difficult, and you are superb, beyond what I deserved. With or without, and dare I say more so without, you will achieve grand things, and I wish you the best. Thank you, Raphael.
My finger hovers over the send button, then slides to erase.
I slam my thumb down on the little paper airplane meant to take my apology, resulting in a rather anticlimactic moment. I take a step, but then–
Oh, but then.
Then, a phone chimes.
My boot slams down to the floor, toe scraping the first metal stair leading up the scaffolding and my shoulders tense at the sound of a familiar ding-ding reminiscent of a trolley.
I slowly turn in place, sure I’m being paranoid.
What I find baffles me.
Io stands halfway between the desk and I, phone in hand and a soft smile upon his face. His mercurial eyes drag from the screen up to me and his features haven’t changed, but in my heart of hearts I know when we lock gazes.
He signs, “I think we can achieve grand things together, don’t you?”
“Raph … Io?” I start and sputter, unsure what to say. “Why do you— Why did you leave only to … Why?”
He sighs, smiling sadly. “I only wanted to be close to you. If I had known … Well, I guess that doesn’t matter now. Do you see now that I’m right here, and I’m not alone? I’ve never been alone, because I’m with you.”
And then, the Man on the Moon offers his hand to me. “I’m sorry for deceiving you. This is me, the real me. Can you forgive me, Arche? Can you allow yourself rest, now?”
He ends his plea with the sign for my name that I’ve loved since the start, and there’s no doubting my decision. There’s so many questions, the deceit erodes my bones, and yet.
How can I not explore the dark side of the moon?
I hope you enjoyed Arche’s story! Tomorrow is Ghost, which is Arlo’s story. Here is a first look.
I met a ghost for the first time when I was six.
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.
But, like all secrets, it was found out. He found out. I lost friends, so many friends, and it brought on a new blanket of pain that I didn’t shed for centuries. I never lost the memories of my first friend, either. My first memories ever, for that fact.
“By chance, do you know where Gleason went? Or, when Thatch will be back? I suppose he’d be the one to talk to about the apartments.”
“Oh? Gleason’s just outside, but Thatch is,” Helena’s iridescent eyes flash to Rhea snorting, then down to the dishwasher digging around in the pastry case, hood pulled down around their face as they struggle to pull out the empty trays, “boss, really?”
The person stands and my heart palpitates in response to my magick’s upcoming symphony. Waves of tightly coiled copper flow from beneath his hood, covering one of his striking oceanic eyes. His mouth’s stuffed full of scone, and mocha icing dots his nose. I bite my cheek in attempts to reel in my magick, a few heads turn in response to the mark on my face glowing brighter than a fucking neon sign.
And no, it’s not him. He’s not my person, so stop looking between us with those smug grins.
“Oh, hello again.” He says over attempts to choke down his food. “You guys missed one.” He points to his reddened cheeks full of scone.
“Oh! You already know each other? Why were you hiding then, boss?” Helena asks and the questions in Quentin’s eyes multiply. I rub the back of my neck in anticipation.
“No, he just, I just, we ran each other last night.” Thatch gestures between us hastily with icing covered fingers, curls bouncing. His eyes linger on mine for a second, but he otherwise avoids looking directly at me. “I did not feel the need to bother you again.”
His gaze hardly falls on Quentin, but Quen can’t stop staring at the man with a smile brighter than the sun. Wait.
And so their shenanigans begin.
Where would you hang out, with the books or in the cafe?