American Horror Story Freakshow = Black Carnival Alternate Universe?

https://farm8.staticflickr.com/7240/14015785516_c0288fd455.jpg

I would definitely like to think that American Horror Story was inspired by my Black Carnival stories. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Week 1: The Beginning

Week 2: The Dolphin-Girl

Week 3: The Unicorn

Week 4: The Bearded Lady

Week 5: The Painless Man

Week 6: The Dollmaker

Does this count as a Throwback Thursday? Maybe?

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Talking about All the Things

So, I dropped off the face of the planet. Sorry about that.

The “summer cold” was, most probably, bronchitis. I’ve been suffering with the coughing for two weeks. It’s been physically terrible for me, and it’s put me through a horrible spiral of “I should be doing things!” “I’m sick!” “…I should be doing things.” “I’m going to die.”

I’m glad you all have still gotten to read some stories. Here is a short list for you to refer back to for each of the weeks of the Write-a-thon. Some of these are not the brand new stories I was hoping for, but all things considered, I hope you enjoyed them.

Week 1: The Beginning

Week 2: The Dolphin-Girl

Week 3: The Unicorn

(the following are the bonus stories)

Week 4: The Bearded Lady

Week 5: The Painless Man

Week 6: The Dollmaker

If you’re still interested in pledging, check out my link here. The Write-a-Thon officially ends August 2.

This week, I am taking an online relationship course called QuirkyTogether101. One of the facilitators is the author Sasha Cagen, whose book “Quirkyalone” helped me through some rough patches of college. It’s pretty amazing, getting this chance to work through issues with a role model. It’s like…taking advanced kite-flying lessons from Ben Franklin. Or mixology with Charles Bukowski.

Anywho, one of the activities this week is to write a love letter to one’s self. I hate to boast, but I loved this exercise so much. It was really important for me to give myself a boost after these rough few weeks. I hope you enjoy it too, and I deeply recommend it, especially if you feel like you’ve been giving yourself as hard of a time as I have.

Thank you again for your beautiful support. Talk more soon!

My Love Letter to Me

Dear Katie,
I’m just here to say…I am totally in lesbians with you. (You’re so awesome that you’re one of the few people who get that reference.)

You’re so easy to take on dates. We went to Ikea tonight, ate $1.50 frozen yogurt and went to the bookstore. We wrote a bit and bought a magazine with Neil Gaiman’s face on the cover. If you weren’t so incredible, I’d call you really easy.

If I have to travel anywhere, you are the person I would always want with me. You have a great taste in music. You’ll sing along to the classics, the cheap top hits and you’ll get really into the good stuff. You stop at all the rest areas, and you never give anyone shit for having to go to the bathroom.

I can totally not wear anything around you, and it’s not even a big deal. The curtains are open? We dance around and let all that glory go!

You get how important nighttime emissions are. Emissions of energy, that is. We’ll burn the midnight oil until our lungs are black. We do dishes in the middle of the night, and if there’s no one to put us to bed, we’ll fall asleep to re-runs of New Girl.

There’s no bad time you can’t make fun. You hang your barefeet out the car window in the traffic. You find things to read, stuff to talk about during the two hour wait for a stupid restaurant. You pick up kids after funerals and let them be awkward around you. Fuck, you would probably smile when the sword was coming down on your neck.

You let me pick my nose when I’m around you. It’s pretty awesome that doesn’t gross you out. Actually, I don’t think anything grosses you out. Kind of weird but totally great.

Also, Crocs. We wear Crocs like no one is watching.

Katie, you are the most adventurous person I know. There’s nothing – NOTHING – you won’t try at least once if given the opportunity. You’ll always get in the water, no matter how cold it is. You’ll watch anything, hang out with anyone and there’s no “kiss and tell” with you…you kiss and scream about it!

So…seriously, will you just go to prom with me already?

Write-a-thon Bonus: The Bearded Lady

Hi, everybody. I’m very sorry for the delay in the story-making. I’ve gotten very sick with some sort of chest congestion, so I’m working on slowly getting back into the swing of things. To keep things going, I’ll be posting a few bonus stories that were previously “published” on my blog, though for many it will be relatively new material. Again, sorry, and rest assured that two new stories should be posted within the week.

The first bonus is “The Bearded Lady,” which was actually my first Black Carnival tale. A slightly tweaked version of this will be in the final collection. Enjoy!

Darwin the Nine-Fingered Dwarf had never felt as enamored, as infatuated, as powerfully obsessed with a woman before as he did with Frida Barada, the breath-taking Bearded Lady.

Kauffee’s Black Carnival rolled through the cities of the South on great, rumbling wheels that chased thunder away with their deep volume, each crack of the ringmaster’s whip breaking distant clouds. Children ran out squealing in delight before their parents could grab them, expecting fantastic pachyderms on tree-trunk legs and smiling, mustached men with top hats. Instead, their wide, wet eyes were met with giant ebony-skinned men with silver tattoos, prowling women in cages with shining nipples putting out long claws through the bars.

To Darwin, the men and women – whether they looked human or bestial – were his brothers and sisters, and he loved them each as if they had known each other for years. Always with a smile on his impish face, Darwin ran about to complete his chores on round, sprinting feet, cleaning out the cages of the Oriental unicorn with its shedding scales and flaming tale or the Navagunjara with its many legs and sharp beak.

“Be careful, Darwin,” cooed one of the Angels – women with long, spindly bones that came out from their spines and twitched like grotesque wings, possibly the remains of attached twins. “You’ll lose another finger.” They giggled, a haunting sound like ceramic pieces falling on a stone table.

He shrugged his diminutive shoulders at their small mockery – after all, families have their rivalries.

“You need know woman, dwarf,” Brutus, the Russian giant told him once as he lifted one of the giant bulls from their pen and easily hefted it in his hand, his muscles glistening like beached, bloated whales. “You no speak nearly as should. Brutus will buy you beautiful Svetlana for you to make with loud groanings and such.”

It was true. Darwin never felt like he had much worth saying, and he found that over the years his tongue had grown dried and cracked like a slab of stone. “You will find much more to do with yourself by focusing on actions, my boy,” the Great Espressitus Kauffee had told him, when he was only a child and barely the size of a dog. He, on the other hand, seemed to loom over the carnival, eyes glowing in a dark, emotionless face. How he had come across so many creatures, oddities and outcasts were stories of legend, hearsay and myth. He drank huge pitchers of steaming liquid, the strongest coffee and the headiest liquors. “We are not philosophers. Leave the talking to the city people. We are what we are.”

Sometimes the wind blew new outcasts and creatures to the sheltered shadows of the great Carnival, and it was just such a twister that dropped Frida upon them. The storm dropped upon them from clouds so heavy with rain they looked like pure blue sky, and for hours it threatened to toss the caravan to the far end of the world like a wooden train set in the hands of an overzealous toddler. After the sun nervously returned to the sky, it was Darwin – eager to clean up the mess of the storm – that found her on the ground, her body bent, a crushed baby bird in the mud. And as suddenly as he came upon her, it felt like the storm had taken all the air from him.

Her cake-brown hair formed a mottled but luscious halo about her pale face, and when her eyes opened, her eyelashes made the softest sounds of a butterfly’s final flutters upon being impaled in a glass box. Her amethyst eyes glowed warmly, strangely, and then there was her beard. Its soft, luxurious fur seemed to kiss her cheeks in beautiful, tight curls. There was a stirring in Darwin the likes of which he had never felt, a tingling like the first day of winter in his fingers, in his…in his…

“Oh, my,” she breathed, her voice a gentle breeze. “I seem to have lost track of the weather. Forgive me. I must look horrible.”

Darwin shook head, smiling adoringly. When she laughed, he thought it might throw him off his feet. “You are a curious little man. What is all this?” She opened her arms, taking in the whole of the Carnival. “I have this feeling…this very strange feeling…that you are what I have been waiting for!”

Darwin’s fist-sized heart opened and closed fast and faster.

Frida became the star of the Carnival. Kauffee disappeared for days and came back with great clams stacked high in his arms. He pried them open one after the other, tossing the shells to Darwin, who watched in quiet reverence as he forged the opalescent material into a grand chamber to affix to the other carts and cages. It was decorated with lush ivory furniture and white velvet, furs and beaded pillows. Darwin was ever at her feet, polishing every knick-knack, every pole, every piece until her eyes would swirl with the myriad of white sparks.

Despite his silence, Frida was ever willing to have his company. They would take long walks throughout the carnival, tending to the fantastic creatures both great and small. She would never sing nor tell fantastic stories, but it was enough for Darwin that she was simply beautiful. Stars didn’t need to sing, right? Nor the moon. The sea didn’t have to tell stories. Nor the mountains. He wanted for nothing more than the glance of her crystal eyes and the wonderful rushing pleasure of her long, curving whiskers.

Darwin lay awake at night in his matchbox bed, dreaming of climbing up the tresses of her magnificent beard and kissing her cherry blushed cheeks. Images of running his nine fingers through it to her pert, firm bosoms made him squirm. He awoke in the morning touching his baby-bottom chin to an obscene degree, rubbing and rubbing it raw.

One day, as they readied for another show, Darwin came upon Brutus juggling the 300-pound Maria. Lucky for him, he did not have to say a word as Brutus nodded sagely. “My little comrade,” he said, throwing Maria like a giant, fleshy water balloon. “Be careful. Falling in love with freaks…it never ends well. Look at the Mr. Kauffee…no baboushkas, no little Kauffee’s running around. We find you nice whore next town over. Woman who sells herself…predictable.”

But Darwin would not hear the words of the giant, and he wandered off, immersing himself in his chores and the thoughts of his beloved Frida. He tried to pull all the thoughts of his heart and shape them into flowers, into letters, into small trinkets and affections to hide under her pillow. One night, in a desperate, long, white dream of her beard growing to an unending length and touching him in such intimate ways, he reached deep within himself and pulled out several ribs. Because he was so small, they came together to form the most beautiful bone comb, and he presented it to her in a velvet box.

“Oh, Darwin, it’s perfect,” she breathed. She still had the same, beautiful breeze of a voice, as if the storm had never quite left her. When he held it up to her, eagerly, at the curling splendor of her beard, he was shocked to see her recoil. “No, Darwin, I’m so sorry. I can’t…you can’t…not that! Please, forgive me!” She ran from him, tears falling from her eyes to the ground like broken glass.

For the first time, the Black Carnival was truly just that. Darwin would not clean, would not leave his quarters. It felt like, as his tongue had, his heart was becoming a red marble in his chest. Dust and dirt came upon the carts, and the creatures stomped impatiently at their own filth. As they moved on, the clouds were not chased away but parted in lieu of the stench. The carnival could rot and fall apart like an aged barn, for all the nine-fingered dwarf cared.

Finally, one night, another storm came upon the parade. This one was so strong, it seemed to threaten the very earth itself, promising to peel it back like the rind of an orange. Despite so much hail and wind and rock-hard rain, Darwin just heard the softest of knocks at his door. Wondering if he had finally lost the last of his sanity, Darwin chanced to open the door just an inch and felt like he had sprouted extra inches as he saw the small image of Frida standing there, his bone comb clutched in her fingers. He threw it open with all his strength, and she blew in and swept him up, kissing him over and over on his plum-pit cheeks. Her beard stroked his nose like a homesick dog, like a well-worn blanket… “I could not stand to be so alone! Even if you want…this…I cannot deny you!”

She pressed the comb to his hands, and Darwin set to work even as he still sat in her lap. He reverently stroked each portion dry with his own shirt, and marveled over how caring for the long, curling strands was as luxurious as he had always imagined, warm and wonderful. He was happy. Happy! Overjoyed! For the first time, the first time…oh!

So much so, in fact, that he did not notice at first when the whole mass of hair fell off into his hands.

So much so, in fact, that he did not stop combing until he opened his eyes and saw Frida’s beautiful, sad, bare – naked – face looking down at him, hopefully.

Darwin could just barely hear her cries, her sad, sad tears and pleading, as he tore herself from her and leapt into the coming gale of the twister. He closed his eyes as the fingers of the wind grabbed his small frame, and he wished hard and long for a land of bearded women, of love, of truth. As the winds took him, reaching into him and stealing his life away, he held tighter and tighter to his love’s lie, the broken beard in his nine fingers.

Write-a-thon Story #3: The Unicorn

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               It was a clear, cold night when the animal jumped in front of Sloane’s car.

               There were so many ways that her mind tried to grasp the appearance of it – a sheet, a wedding dress, a snowstorm – and the fact that she couldn’t place the shape may have been why she didn’t let her foot off the accelerator. But when it stopped and turned on such delicate legs at her, bottomless mountain pond eyes catching hers with a passive apathy and not hinting even at curiosity in the last moment, she wasn’t able to hit the brakes until she was upon it.

                The car struck it with a sound like it had hit a cloud.

                As Sloane sat in the driver’s seat of her truck, breaths coming shallowly in small, quivering puffs, she almost didn’t get out of the car. The lack of a crash or even a sound thud made her wonder if she had scared herself awake from a dream, some midnight illusion. Not that she had been asleep, of course, but so late at night it’s easy for the mind to wander and then to startle oneself back to paying attention. But Emory was barking furiously, nose shivering like it might jump off his snout, and she figured better to take a second and look than risk a ticket for leaving an animal in the road.

                She slipped Emory’s leash on, knowing that if she left the beagle in the car he might get excited and lock her out or tear the seat up in his excitement. There was no other traffic on the back road leading into the city, and she could make out the outline of it jutting from the river like an electric castle. She hadn’t wanted to drive out to Mary’s house so late, but she insisted that they have dinner before signing the divorce papers. She wanted so much for them to stay…comfortable.

                They got to talking over dessert. Mary wanted to know all about some freak show in town, some traveling carnival or something. She wanted to know if she wanted to see it with her.

                Maybe if she hadn’t had such a large glass of red wine, Sloane thought she might not have laughed so hard she spit bloody tears on her tablecloth. “You want to set up a date after I sign the death certificate to our marriage? I don’t know if you’re being a cold bitch or if you’re just stupid.”

                Mary cried like she always did – huge, like an actress, flailing and sobbing. Sloane put her arms around her and tried to play along. She told her again that she forgave her for sleeping with her friend from the finance department, and she pretended to be sorry for what she said. They didn’t say much after that, and Emory chose the lull in excitement to scratch at the door.

                “You love that dog more than you ever loved me.” Sloane looked back at her and there must have been some pain there because Mary’s eyes showed a half-moon of triumph. Sloane found herself smiling when she agreed and stomped out on the porch.

                Now here she was, bent over this…thing she had hit. She cussed at the cold night. That glass of wine really was too big.

                The heat from the body and the car made the whole world smoke. She put her hand down on the tiny white flank, surprised that she almost dwarfed it, and shuddered at the soft whistle of a keen the thing made, like the fading memory of a song. Emory snuffed its ear, and Sloane was about to bat him away when his hand froze above the creature’s single, shining horn.

                Sloane hadn’t been to church in years, but she found she was crossing herself.

                Holy ghost.

                As she hauled the thing into her truck bed, she realized there was no blood, not marking the road and not soaking into the raggedy blanket she used to cover it. It was no heavier than a child, and the smell on her hands reminded her of linens and grandmothers and lilacs. Emory rolled on his side next to it, one paw over the animal’s back, his muzzle resting near the slender neck. The look in the dog’s eyes told him that he wouldn’t be moved, so Sloane got back into the truck alone.

                Every movement on the road made Sloane jump a little after that. Each driver who locked their sight with hers made her look away with a guilty paranoia, like they suspected the holy cargo she was carrying. Twice they stopped when she had taken a curve a little too quick, and twice she moved to the back and lifted an inch of that blanket. And twice she touched that horn with the tip of one finger, to remind her that she wasn’t dreaming.

                If she stayed too long, Emory would growl. The sound was so foreign she figured it better than to test him, so she would be the one with her tail between her legs, slinking back to the ignition.   

                When Sloane got to her apartment building, she saw someone standing out front. It was Roger, her band’s bass player, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He threw it on the sidewalk as she got out. “Dude, where the fuck have you been? We were supposed to practice an hour ago.”

                “Look, man, you knew I was going out to Mary’s tonight. Get out of my face.” She stood between him and back of the truck, uncertain how close she should let him get to the…whatever it was in the back.

                His expression softened just slightly under his blonde bangs, and he raised a hand to push the mess of hair out of his face, trying to cool down. Sloane took the moment to glance at her watch. She had actually stood him up for closer to two hours, but what difference did it make? “I thought you all were just going to sign the papers and be done with it. It’s not like you can stand being around her.”

                “She wanted to have dinner. It’s not like we have any gigs we’re practicing for, anyway.” Guilt hit her almost as soon as the words came out. “Sorry. It’s just been a rough night, okay?”

                Roger held onto his case a little tighter. “At least some of us are making a fucking effort instead of locking ourselves away, crying our little dyke tears for some bitch who-”

                The thunderstorm that had been growing in her gut exploded, then, and Sloane took a swing at him. Her fist hit his cheek, and the bass hit the sidewalk with a discordant crack. He came back at her with a right cross that grazed her temple, and then as she was reeling, he tackled her hard. The wind knocked out of her, she wheezed as he picked her up by the lapels of her flannel and slammed her into the ground. “What’s your problem, man? I wait here for you, and you come back and give me shit.”

                At first, all she could see was white, and then the night sky came back into focus.

                “I said I was sorry,” she finally said, sense accompanying the oxygen in her lungs. “Get off me, you dick.”

                “Do you want to talk about it?”

                Looking up into his face, past his leather jacket and torn up jeans, Sloane realized that this was the closest to a friendship she would probably ever get. “No. Thanks.”

                He arched his back and looked at her truck. In her clearing senses, Sloane picked up the sound of Emory yodeling. The other parts of the night came back hard, like another punch. “Dude, your dog is freaking out,” Roger said as he stood up, pulling Sloane up with him.

                “Yeah, about that…” She prayed that she wasn’t making yet another mistake. “I need your help with something.”

 

                About twenty minutes later, Sloane and Roger stood over the tub in her studio apartment. The unicorn – it was Roger who said it first, practically screamed it, in fact – fit into it perfectly, its thin legs tucking up under itself like a deer. Fur the color of starlight seemed sickly under the flickering bare bulb that hung near the mirror.

                Emory sat next to the tub, resting his head on the toilet seat lid. Now and then, his tail would thump against the grimy linoleum, and he would look up at Sloane, waiting for her to move it again.

                “What are you going to do with it, dude?”

                Sloane let go a low whistle. “I have no clue. I mean, I hit it with my car, it might not even last long.”

                Roger turned his head, squinting. “He…She…uh…it looks okay, you know. For something so small that you slammed into with that hunk of junk.”

                “Yeah, there’s no blood or anything, but look.” She pointed down at its back legs. There were bulges just under the snowy surface. “Emory busted his leg a few years back going down the stairs, and it looked a lot like that.”

                “You could call a vet.”

                “And tell them what, dumb ass? ‘Yeah, so I hit a unicorn with my car, could you come out and take a look at it’?”

                Roger shoved her hard. “Look, man, it was just an idea. I don’t know what to do with it, okay?”

                Sloane pressed her hand against her face. It felt like she had been sweating all night. “I know, I know. Let’s just go to practice. There’s nothing I can do with it tonight either way, right? Come on. Emory, you too.”

                The dog – who would usually follow along with Sloane wherever she went, whether she actually called him by name or not – didn’t even stir from his spot on the floor.

                “Emory,” she said, more firmly than she had had to in a long time. “Come.”

                He whined and lay down.

                Sloane picked her guitar up and headed for the door. “Fine. Forget it.”

 

                They met with the other guys and had practice, and Sloane wasn’t sure if maybe it was just because of how bad the rest of the night had been but…they sounded pretty good. Better than they had in a long time, in fact. Even Jonas, who usually showed up a little high and a lot crappy, playing the drums like he was three with a spoon and some pans. “Good job tonight,” she said to him as they cleaned up. “I guess things are going well with that chick who moved in.”

                “Mika. Thanks. Yeah, I don’t know, I just felt really ‘in it’ tonight, you know?”

                Roger cut in as he wrapped an electric chord between his hand and elbow. “Well, keep feeling ‘in it’ like that, and we might actually get back to the Garage.”

                The Garage was a small club and bar in the southside. They had been getting consistent gigs a year before but had been cut out after the management changed. “We just want a newer sound,” the new owner said over the phone. “Kids want to hear electronics and keyboards these days, not punk.”

                Roger had evidently gone into a screaming tirade about differences in musical genres for so long and with so much cursing that the man on the other end had to eventually hang up. Sloane didn’t really blame him; she had made the same mistake once, getting him started, and she had to hang up, too.

                They went out for drinks after that, and she was approached by a mousy girl in a floral-print sundress. She had curly, short hair the color of honey, and her voice was sweet when she said that her name was Hazel. But it wasn’t just her cute face that made Sloane stare longer than she should have. Two long, bony protrusions came out of her back. They moved with her, like wings…or at least like what wings might look like, if they were plucked. Bleached.

                “Do you want to touch them?”

                Sloane nodded, her mouth dry. They felt smooth and cool, satin and ivory and magic. Magical. “Wow.”

                “Do you want to come back to my place?” Hazel asked. “You look like you’ve had a rough night. We could have a couple of drinks.”

                She was startled by how much like Mary she looked when she said that, and she hated saying, “No, sorry, Not tonight. I’m…uh…I’m coming out of something really rough right now.”

                Sloane waited for her to roll her eyes and walk away or even pout, but instead Hazel took her hand in her tiny, pale one and wrote her number down on Sloane’s palm. “For when things are a bit more smooth. Okay?”

                “Okay.”

                When she got home, a bit too warm and a bit too top-heavy, she crashed without looking in the bathroom again. Her bed – a mattress on the floor covered in laundry of all matter of sizes, shapes and varying degrees of cleanliness – was a surprisingly comfortable cloud, and it was the best sleep she had in months.

                The next afternoon, when her eyes opened, she didn’t move her head or look to the window. She expected the unhappy afterbirth from a night of drinking. Her phone buzzed from the cluttered coffee table Roger had constructed for her out of several pieces of wood and two cinder blocks. Lying on her back, it went to voicemail.

                When Sloane finally ventured to sit up, it was unencumbered by hangover or headache. She stretched, ready for it to strike like a viper awoken, but it never did. She wandered over to the corner where she had her tiny fridge and hotplate, pulling out a carton of eggs and orange juice. Where had those come from? She hadn’t gone grocery shopping since before Mary moved out, sustaining herself entirely on the Chinese take-out place on 52nd and an occasional trip to the gas station.

                Jonas had stayed over after practice last week. Maybe he left them…

                After a quick lunch, she poured some dog food into a bowl and took it into the bathroom. Emory hadn’t moved, his ears still resting on the floor, glassy black eyes looking up at her. She glanced into the tub, and the unicorn was still there. She wasn’t certain, but she thought that it looked a bit less luminescent, like dirty, street-side snow instead of the flawless white of the night before. And had it fit into the tub that well, last night?

                Emory whined.

 

                Knock, knock, knock.

                Sloane put down the fender she was tuning and wandered to the door. There was no face on the other side of the door, just a mess of hair. She only knew one other person who was that short, and for a second, she didn’t move, didn’t touch the door knob. Finally, she twisted it, leaving the chain latched.

                “What do you want?”

                The sliver of Mary on the other side of the paint-chipped, heavy old door smiled, tight-lipped. “I was in the city and thought I’d stop by. I left a message on your phone.”

                Right, the voicemail. She hadn’t checked it yet. “Right. So you stopped by. Great. Can I do something for you?”

                The thin, pressed lips seemed to cave in further, and Sloane could see the hint of her teeth, chewing. “You left last night without…you know.”

                “Saying goodbye?”

                Her ex-wife lifted an envelope. “Signing the papers.”

                After a second, Sloane closed the door to let the chain loose, opening it again to usher Mary in without a word. “Wow,” Mary said, sitting on the old couch, another curbside-find that Roger had brought by a year ago.  “It looks good in here, Sloane. Really.”

                “Thanks.” She almost told her that she had just cleaned it, had finished finding out what clothes were clean and which were dirty five minutes before she knocked. She wanted to gloat about how she had swept and taken a few rags to the windows. But if she said all that, she might have ended up wanting to tell her about the unicorn in the bathroom, so she didn’t say anything else.

                “Sloane…I wasn’t fair to you last night. I invited you out there, and then I was a…I was terrible to you. I’m sorry.”

                Sloane picked at a frayed hole in her jeans. “Yeah, I was nasty, too. It’s okay.” After a too-long pause, she reached out towards the envelope, but Mary didn’t let go.

                When her lips parted, she barely whispered, “I thought…”

                Sloane didn’t let go, but she didn’t pull any harder either. “What?”

                “Could we try again?”

                “What?”

                Mary spoke louder, but her voice was untouched by anger, free of any malice or manipulation. “This…all of it…it was my idea and I think I changed my mind and I can’t imagine spending my life without you. I want us to do this again. We don’t have to live together yet. I just don’t want to nail the coffin shut, you know?”

                Now it was Sloane’s turn to feel tense, to feel her face pulling in protectively. She got ready for her to laugh and say she was kidding, to tell her to sign the papers so she could go out on a date. “What about what’s-her-name. At work. Who you…”

                “No, baby. No. She was a temp. She’s gone. I don’t even have her phone number.”

                “What if you did?”

                “I don’t want to be with her. I want you.” Mary pulled at the envelope so she could cover Sloane’s hand with hers. The soft skin moved over the calluses from night after night of frets and playing away the pain. “You’re my wife.”

                Sloane let go of the papers but didn’t pull away. And when they kissed on the couch, a soft, hesitant reconciliation, she didn’t pull back then, either.

 

                After Mary left, Sloane finally checked her messages.

                The other was from Roger. They didn’t have a gig.

                They had two.

 

                “Hey, man, there’s some guy outside looking for you.”

                Sloane looked up from the speaker she was trying to get working. Jonas was twirling his drumsticks in one hand, and she recognized the nervous tick. “Yeah? What does he want?”

                “I don’t know, but he said he has to talk to you.”

                “You know we’re going back on in five. Can it wait?”

                “I don’t think so. I don’t know. He just said he has to talk to you, okay?”

                Sloane rolled her eyes and got up. When she headed outside, she could tell immediately who Jonas had been talking to. He had a shock of red hair and a face like a car accident. His muscles bulged under the dirty wife-beater, and she tried on a smile. He refused to afford her the same courtesy. “Sloane.” His voice was dirty, sharp, a hunk of dangerous metal.

                “Yeah. A fan of the band? Can I give you an autograph or something?” She reached out her hand, a peace offering. When he took it, he squeezed so hard she thought it might break. She tried to pull out of his hold but to no avail.

                “Have something of mine,” he growled. The way there wasn’t any question in what he said made her feel sick. She thought of the bathroom, the thing in the tub. “Want it back.”

                “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She finally reached out and shoved his chest with her hand. “Back off.”

                The man let go of her but only took a half-step back. Within a second, he stepped forward until she had her back to the brick wall of the club, two freckled hands on her shoulders. “Could be easy,” he growled. Then, he ground his knuckles against her bones in such a way that she cried out. She kneed him in the groin, waited for him to double over, but nothing happened. “Could be hard.”

                For a second, just as she thought the pain was going to be too much, something in her asked why she was doing this. Why she didn’t just tell him that, yes, she had what he was looking for, that he could have it back. And just as quickly, her subconscious knew why: it was the reason Mary had shown up, that the band was booked solid for the next month, that things were looking good for the first time in recent memory.

                Suddenly, Sloane caught the sight of a bottle coming down in a fast, nasty arch. It broke against the guy’s face, blood and beer pouring from his skull. He let her go, and another set of hands pulled her back. Roger’s rage was deafening, burning white in his face and in the knuckles that were holding her back. “Fuck off, asshole, before I call the cops.”

                Under the red of his hair and the blood, Sloane shook when she realized that he looked barely affected. “Not over,” he said in a frighteningly stable tone as he turned and walked away down the alley, one hand flicking the liquid off his face like it was just sweat.

                “What was that all about?”

                “He knew.” She took what was supposed to be a steadying breath. It didn’t help. “He knew, Roger. About the unicorn.”

                “You should come back to my place.”

                “No. It’s fine. I’m fine.”

                “Sloane, come on, man.”

                “I said I’m fine. I could have handled it. He just was…” Not being able to find an adequate excuse made her madder, and she yelled, “I don’t need any help. Aren’t you supposed to be getting ready for the set?”

                Roger’s mood changed, a page flipping suddenly on his face to reveal a wolfish grin. He pulled a card out of his jacket pocket and handed it to her. “Check it out.”

                The adrenaline that was easing off became swept up in the rush of shocked delight. Eggshell white and professional printing gave the name, address and phone number of Docile Tones Music Group.

 

                A week later, the unicorn had, in fact, gotten smaller. Now, it was only the size of a large dog. Emory still wasn’t eating. “He’s healthy,” the vet had told her after several tests. “He’s young, there’s no physical reason he isn’t eating. Have you tried changing his food?”

 

                When they finished recording, Sloane had seen cats bigger than the unicorn. She started force-feeding Emory supplements. “You don’t seem really with it tonight, dude,” Roger told her after they had been working on a song for an hour. She kept missing chords because she was so exhausted from staying up with the dog.

                “Sorry.” Then, she muttered, “Not like it matters. We could suck and we’d still be successful.”

                “What did you say?”

                “Nothing. Forget it.”

 

                When they got back from touring, the unicorn could be held to her like a rabbit. When Sloane started packing up her things, preparing to move out to Mary’s house, she found Emory in her walk-in closet adjacent to the bathroom. He was cold, stiff, on his side.

                Just as she was becoming completely undone, there was a knock on the door. She answered it. There was a giant man, dark and silent as death. In the lonely hallway, he cast a long shadow and it grew out from his feet in a way that was almost organic. “You have something of mine,” he said.

                She sobbed, unable to hold it back, a terrible explosion in a minefield of grief. “I’m sorry.”

                He lifted one hand to his face, rubbing the thin black beard. “I sent two before me to try to get it out of you. One to seduce, the other to coerce. You recognize the worth of a unicorn. I can respect that.”

                Sloane wished she could stop crying, and more than that, she wished he would just take the thing and leave. He regarded her like a scientist studying the behavior of an animal. “Knowing what you know now, and all that you’ve gained…would you say it was worth it?”

                All she could think of was Emory.

                Emory, who was there when Mary told her about the affair.

                Emory, who would come up to meet her when she came home from another bad practice.

                Emory, who curled up at the foot of her bed, within arm’s reach when she had drunk too much and needed to sleep it off.

                Emory.

                What had she done?

                “No,” she said. “If I could have him back, I would give it all up.”

                “Have you not gotten everything you could want? Fame, fortune, the stuff of kings and the greatest bards and…”

                Sloane crossed the room and threw open the door. She gathered the unicorn up in the blanket, now too large and mostly hanging to the floor around the small creature. She held it out to him. “I don’t want any of it. Please, just…bring him back.”

                “What makes you think I can do such a thing?” He took the tiny bundle.

                Through the tears, she actually laughed a bit. “You send me an angel and a devil and you expect me to believe you can’t heal a dog?”

                “Fair. Give me your hand.”

                She did. He drew back a bit of the blanket and ran the horn – now barely more than a needle – through her finger. Sloane shrunk back as blood dripped from the wound, tiny drops marking the wooden floor. For how small it was, it felt like her hand was on fire.

                The last thing she saw was the little unicorn – a dusty creature with blood on its horn – regard her with an expression that was endless and eternal, and she slipped away.

                  

                “What’s your problem, man? I wait here for you, and you come back and give me shit.”

                At first, all she could see was white, and then the night sky came back into focus.

                Roger was on top of her, a gash on his face. She had hit him – she knew it because her fist ached – but…why?

                Emory licked her face. Where was she? She had been somewhere else…had he knocked her into the ground that hard? “Sorry,” she said. “I…uh…what were we talking about?”

                “Come on, stop dicking around. You’re fine.”

                “Then get off already.”

                “Okay, okay. Don’t take another swing at me, Sloane. I’m serious.”

                She sat up. Starbursts went off in her vision, and there was this feeling in the back of her head, like she was going to say something and had then forgotten. Like a story or a dream was on the tip of her tongue and now it was gone.

                “So are we going to practice or what?”

                Sloane blinked and scratched Emory behind the ears. He seemed really excited, but she wasn’t sure why. “What?”

                “Practice,” he said, drawing out the word. “You know, you play guitar and I play bass and Jonas pretends to play the drums.”

                “Right, sorry. Just a second, I have to get something out of the back.”

                She walked over behind the truck. She couldn’t actually think of what she was expecting to be there, because the only thing was an old blanket. It looked like it had been thrown back there. Not wanting to seem like she was losing it, she picked it up and folded it up. Emory whined, and she could swear there was a smell there, something more than the metallic, oily grime scent of the truck.

                Something soft, sweet, and then short-lived.

Write-a-thon Story #2: The Dolphin-Girl

               If asked, Kano, who was eight, could tell you two of the first things he could remember:

               The first was the stories about a time where there were no dolphins. The elders always spoke fondly of the fabled time, when they had been prosperous, blessed by the ocean kami with an abundance of fish.

               Those glorious years ended, the old men said, when the spirit of the village had become drunk during the seasonal festival. He tumbled down the hill to the shore, where he unfastened his pants and urinated in the waves. The sea god Mizusama became enraged and called a pod of dolphins to the desecrated water. For every drop of urine that touched the salty tide, twenty dolphins came to life and each swallowed one hundred fish.

                The village spirit had passed out upon the sand and rose the morning after to the wailing of his people. That was the day, they said, the village spirit first showed them how to slaughter dolphins.

                The second memory was his father’s back. The tall, imposing line of his father’s body would walk in a warrior’s stride down the hill to the cove, where he and the other fathers would go to hunt. It was always the hottest day of the summer, a month before the festival. He was never allowed to follow, though he always tried, and year by year his mother would pick him up, smooth the ink-black hair from his forehead and tell him that one day he could go. One day, but that, today, there were better things for young eyes to see than blood in the water.

                Kano always knew when the thirty days of the slaughter season were over, because the festival was always a happy time. On the last day, the fishermen would come home together, their sacks full of dolphin hearts to be taken to the temple of the village spirit. There would be sake, songs, and for one night his father’s face would be rosy, a smile on his lips. Sleep would be saved for the morning, and no one worked the next day.

 

                Now, if asked, Kano, who was ten, would say that he thought he was old enough to go to the cove with his father. Because he had been eight when his mother had taught him how to make mochi, cook noodles and brew tea, and because he had been nine when his mother taught him how to mend his own kimono. And now, at ten, his mother had taught him how to meet his father’s eyes when he had done something wrong. When his father returned with the black blanket of stars following with his steps, the boy met him at the door. A rock-shaped, purple bump stood out under his eye. “What happened?” his father asked.

                “I got into a fight,” he said.

                “You should not fight,” his father said as he knelt to remove his sandles.

                “But I have,” he went on, “and if I am old enough to fight, I am old enough to hunt dolphins. I know the other sons do, and they are not so older than I am.” He had practiced the speech, and he said it the way he thought a man should.

                Kano’s father’s face set like dark mud baked in the sun. “None of the boys go into the cove,” he said. “They are only being hateful because their mothers throw them out of the house to occupy themselves. How lucky you are to have a mother who is happy to have you around.” 

                “They do go,” he insisted. “They sneak down the cliff and watch and wait. I know they do. Tatsuo told me.”

                “If it is true, than Tatsuo will have a beating I think you would not wish to share,” his father replied and pressed past the boy and up the stairs. He smelled like metal and fish and a steam came off him as if he had been cooked in the water, cooked in the blood. When he was up the stairs and into the house, Kano sniffled indignantly. Just once. And then he stayed there.

                Kano woke up to the sound of his father coming down the stairs again. The step he had slept on had left him feeling bent. He blinked in the early morning, had never been awake so early it was still night outside, the sun still on her back to the world. “You may walk with me a ways,” his father said after many seconds of silence. “When I tell you to stop, though, you must. We’ll see if this is what you really wish to be doing.”

                Kano stuck his chest out and tried not to yawn. He wished they had gone later so the other boys would be awake, outside and playing, and could see them together, going on their way to the cove to kill the dolphins. He grinned up at his father, but he said nothing, and he figured that maybe in the start of the dawn he couldn’t see him and that’s why he scowled.

                The road took them down, and they came to a divide. Kano could just see the open mouth of the cove, and already further out in the morning waves there were things moving. Fins cutting the surface. Slapping tails and mouths. The road would still go on a ways, further down and to the docks out of sight in the trees. His father turned to him then and told him this was where he needed to stay.

                Kano sat down and waited.

                For a young child, two hours would surely be long enough to conquer the world. With no distractions, no friends, not even his mother or the mochi it felt like his father had surely left him to die here. He lied back on the grass at the side of the road, and twice groups of fishermen tried to hurry him home. “No,” he croaked, almost always caught napping. “I’m here to help my father kill the dolphins.”

                They laughed and left him.

                Suddenly, after the sun had risen over the cove and he could hear the soft murmurs of the village and the women and the old couples playing Shogi, there came a sound like a dagger across glass. Kano clapped his hand over his ears as the sound pierced his chest. Rising to his feet, he turned his back on the cove, towards his village, hoping he could still hear the oblivious notes and melodies of a world where this wasn’t happening. But still the sound came, again and again. He never imagined that dolphins could scream, always imagining that they died like fish with glassy eyes and, flopping and silent.

                When he looked back and saw that the mouth of the cove was bleeding, the bright red tide waving out into the water like fire, he started running. But even though his heart was telling him to run home into the arms of his mother, he ran down the winding street towards the water, his short hair whipping in his eyes. He wanted to know that it wasn’t happening, that that noise was not the sounds they made, that it wasn’t this horrible, that what his father had been doing was honorable and right and…

                They had been herded into the shallows, and the water churned into a stormy foam. The massive bodies crushed against each other, and their black eyes watched the fading world around them with an awareness that frightened Kano terribly.  He couldn’t make out any distinct shapes of the dolphins, but the water was full of tails and fins and teeth and that same scream, again and again.

                The lifeless bodies that had already been pulled from the fray lay draining on the sand.

                The outline of his father stood out against the white light of the afternoon, spear in hand. His arm would hang in the air and then strike, over and over, ending and ending.

                He could just barely hear somebody yelling and pointing from another boat. Not at him, he realized, but into a section of the driven creatures. His father didn’t pause and didn’t acknowledge the other fisherman. Kano looked, and he knew what he saw. A hand. A face. Only now and then, of course, as it was driven beneath the fright and panic of the dying, but…yes.

                He was running again, and this time the yelling and pointing was at him. He yelled too, trying to get the attention of the child in the water, but the face would just bob up, mouth opening as if joining in the cacophony of passing souls around it, and then sink again. His feet hit the water, the salty blood warmer than bathwater, thicker. It swallowed him whole.

                Immediately, he was assaulted by both sides. Water went into his nose, and he threw it out his mouth. A blinding pain in his side, his hand. He tried to watch for the face, for anything, but he was under the water too. The force of the dolphins was too much, and there was no running away from it now.

                Then, his hand found something. Another hand, the same size as his. He squeezed.

                For a moment, he could see through the foam another pair of black eyes with a small nose and wild hair and sharp little teeth. The girl pulled back – she could only have been his age, but she was strong like his father – but he dug his nails in. Then, there was a grip on his neck, and he was hauled up from the water, both of them dropped into the bottom of his father’s boat.

                The blows came fast and fierce on his ears, but his father’s rage was interrupted by the girl. Her pale, naked body scrambled, slick fingers trying to find purchase on the boat. She had one of those little hands outstretched to the water as if trying to pull it back to her. His father pulled her back by the shoulder, and those sharp teeth found his arm. He howled. When he managed to pull her off by the mane of midnight-colored hair, the crescent moon wound shone with blood, and he shouted a command to a man at his stern. They moved away from the cove.

                All the way home she made that same horrible noise, and Kano could feel the eyes of his neighbors on them. He felt beaten bare, and he found himself staring at the girl, the first female body he’d ever seen. Looking at her too long resulted in an extra cuff in the neck.

                Word must have travelled faster than they walked, because Kano’s mother was at the door. The girl had become exhausted throwing herself to the ground and hung limply as his mother picked her up, though she mewled softly in protest. She was taken to the bath where his mother washed the cove from her hair before placing her in the tub. She bobbed lifelessly, clicking softly in a way that started at her teeth and ended in her throat.

                Kano stood with his father at the doorway, where the man stared ahead, his dark face determined and worn and old. The blood and water on his fingers dropped freely, creating a dark clay mud. He said nothing to Kano as he walked away, down the street to the temple. He emerged after a day and night with his clothes torn and a long cut down his chest. Kano threw his arms around him, sobbing “Gomen, gomen nasai” but there was no sound. No heartbeat, no breath. Only the rhythmic crashing of his blood, hollow and slow, like a wave in a cave.

                His father died on the eve of the festival. As the lights went up in the paper lanterns, he simply extinguished on his futon, where he had stayed, eyes open, staring at the ceiling.

                Mika – that’s the name Kano’s mother started to call her by, because of that clicking she had made in the tub that day – smiled throughout the entire funeral. “She has the face of a dolphin,” Kano heard one of the villagers say to his mother. “Always smiling in the middle of misery. She will bring you and your family only sorrow. Better you should turn her out.”

                “No,” his mother said, picking her up and holding her in a way she had never held him. “He brought her from the water, and I will not disgrace his memory by casting her away.”

                The oldest of the elders approached them when they left the burial site, so old that his eyes always seemed closed, his lips invisible. But even as quiet as he was, Kano heard him say, “Then you cannot stay.”

 

                If asked, Kano, now eleven, would say that he would rather have his village and his father than the little barbarian girl.

                The city was huge and loud, far from the sea. They could only afford a tiny apartment, where they shared a single bedroom and a tiny living space. Mika became sick and feverish for a time, and Kano’s mother stayed with her throughout the nights, touching her face with a wet kerchief. One day, she woke up not only with that same smile but that same heat. She practically immolated with the rage in her and burned them whenever possible.

“Kano, let’s play.”

                The boy cringed, looking up Mika’s grinning face. “I don’t want to play, Mika.”

                Behind her, other little girls from school were giggling. She had acquired a following from the younger girls because of her pretty face and tough disposition. “I didn’t ask. Let’s play. I go first!”

                Kano cried out as she punched him hard with her knuckle. His arm throbbed and his sleeve stained with blood. “No, Mika! That hurts!”

                She didn’t stop smiling, but she did step back as the blossom of crimson grew bigger. She dropped something on the ground: she had been holding a sharp shell between two fingers. “I win.”

                He didn’t cry until they ran off. His mother didn’t come out to check on him. She never did anymore. Now, afternoons were spent napping or cleaning up messes Mika had made. Most recently, she had kept the water pumping into the tub after it filled up, flooding the bathroom and creating a swamp in the two rooms below. The landlord had threatened to take it out of their rent if Kano’s mother didn’t repair the damage.

                “Do you miss Father?” he asked after bandaging the cut.

                His mother smiled, only as bright as a candle light from where she was lying down. “When I have time to, my dearest.”

 

                If asked, Kano, now twelve, would tell you that he was at least glad that Mika isn’t just turning her wrath on him anymore.

                Standing at the window of the classroom, he could make out a circle of girls in the far corner of the yard below. They were closing in on a small, huddled classmate, a junior student named Rui. She shook in fear, and he could just hear the shrillness of Mika’s voice in the distance before the laughter.

                When Rui came in later, her jumper torn and a cut on her cheek, Kano offered her his personal first aid kit. “I always try to be ready for my sister’s monsoon. I know she is a bit difficult. Gomen nasai.”

                She smiled, a tiny splinter of joy across her face. That’s what they had said when they moved into the city: Mika was his sister. And his father? Best not to talk about it. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”

                When they walked through the hall together, Rui held Kano’s hand. It made him feel special, appreciated, and he kept her away from Mika, who watched them when their backs were turned. They shared their lunches packed from home, and one day Rui let Kano kiss her cheek after they played with her kitten, Hana.

                A few days later, Rui stopped talking to Kano. She avoided him in between classes, and when he tried to stop her outside, she said, “I’m sorry. I can’t be around you.”

                “Why?”

                She ran away without answering. Heartbroken, Kano turned to go back inside the building, almost running into Mika. Her eyes were glassy, everything in her face cruelty. “I know I’m a bit difficult,” she said in a mocking tone. “Gomen nasai.”

                She dropped a tiny, kitten-sized collar on the ground. It was soaking wet.

                That night, Mika bled for the first time in the tub, and Kano felt nothing when he heard her screaming.

 

                If asked, Kano, now thirteen, would rather not talk about Mika. Mika, who had never been anything but cruel to them, had started spending more and more time with him. Mika, who had never tried to fit into a normal society in lieu of her wildness, the savagery in which she was born, was now going out with other teenagers to get special clothes.

                Very nice-looking clothes.

                One day, when caught staring, Kano’s mother took him aside and hissed, “You cannot. Kano, I know how old you are now, but you must not. Our life here depends on you remembering she is your sister. It is all anyone knows.”

                “Of course, Mother,” he said as he tried to think how he could avoid the images he had of Mika’s body.

                After dinner, they snuck out together to a movie theater downtown. She kissed him as the film played, and he could only see bits of her in the ebb and flow of light and dark. Kano had a sudden reminiscence to that first day, to the cove.

                “I want to take you back there,” he confessed to her, his breath soft on her lips. “To the sea.”

                She laughed and cried into his neck, and he started planning immediately. When they had their summer break, he could take them back to the shore by train. He bought tickets in secret, and they made tandem plans so they could sneak away from his mother without suspicion.

                At the train station, Kano waited for her by the turnstile. When she arrived, she got out of a boy’s car. He was at least three years her senior, and they kissed deeply, shamelessly. Kano felt a fish in his gut.

                When she came up to him, his shock did not affect her. “What?” she asked. 

                He tore the tickets apart.

                Mika didn’t come home after that, and Kano felt nothing.

 

                If asked, Kano, now nineteen, would say how much more quiet it is in the apartment without Mika.

                When Mika disappeared from the bus station, she started living with other people. She escaped the city and stayed with a commune for a year. After that, it was a string of boyfriends and girlfriends. The only reason he knew that much was because, after he left to attend university, he would get calls from his mother. “Mika asked me for money,” she’d say, “She and Asuho are moving into a garage with a band.”

                “Mother,” Kano reasoned, telling from her cough that she had given the spare dollars to Mika instead of to the doctor. “You cannot keep giving her money.”

                “Your father would not have pulled her from the water for me to see her on the street,” she said. She coughed again. It sounded like pieces of her were breaking off with each sound.

                “Mother…”

                “She told me to give you her number. So you can call her. Do you want it? Write it down.”

                “I’m listening.” He didn’t move. He just let the numbers pass between them like bits of static over the line.

                One day, after a thick and heavy rain, Mika appeared at Kano’s door. She was soaked, and her skin had this ashy gray tone, like that of a dead person. Her eyes drooped, and he caught her as she fell into his living room.

                He pushed everything off the couch and laid her body down. She was so light, so fragile. In the still quiet of the apartment, he could hear the small clicks she made when she slept.

                She didn’t move for days.

                And she still hadn’t moved when a knock came to the door. Kano answered, certain he would find a fellow student or a teacher chiding his absence. Instead, it was a long, tall, dark man. A man so huge he had to bend at the knee to get in Kano’s door. He took off his slender hat and shoes, respectfully, but even then he was still several heads over Kano.

                “She is dying,” the man said as he sipped his tea.

                “No. She can’t die. We saved her.”

                “You did once, yes. But she has always been more dolphin than human. She will never tell you how bad it has been, but know, boy, that she is dying.”

                He reached over and smoothed her hair. There was still a crease in her cheek, where she smiled even in sleep. Her flesh was cool to his touch, all that heat dead. “What must I do?”

                “I can save her,” he said, his giant fingers folding together. He talked about his caravan of monsters, of the magic that he possessed. Kano said nothing. “She will never be completely human, just as she will never be completely dolphin, but I can give her a life that is a little bit of both.”

                “How has she lived so long, if what you say is true?”

                “Your father gave the village spirit his heart. He spared her, for a time. Now, that time is ending. Without the sea, this world is drowning her.”

                “I could take her to the ocean. We can get a home there together. We…”

                The man set his cup down hard. “She will never love you. And you will never be happy.”

                The words sat between them, echoing in the air like the beats of a gong. Kano didn’t want to know that was true, but it settled in him, facts made of stone on his heart. “She can decide.”

                The man agreed, and he sent for someone – a red-haired, speckled boy in a workman’s shirt – to bring him a small vial of red liquid. He pressed it to her lips. “What is that?” Kano asked.

                “Shark blood,” the man replied. “From the Great Barrier Reef.”

                The next morning, she was awake with the man before Kano had even gotten out of bed. She looked like she had cleaned herself, washed her hair, and she smiled at him. He smiled back. Without any discussion, the man stood up and put on his shoes and hat. “Ready?”

                Kano opened his mouth to protest, but she said, “Of course,” and headed towards the door after him.

                The man met Kano’s gaze. His expression reminded him of old men from his village who would win a game of Shogi and neither be pleased nor dissatisfied with the result. Winning and losing were as natural as living and dying.

                “Stay,” Kano said, quickly, barking it. “Stay with me.”

                “No,” she said.

                She kissed him, then, when his mouth was still open. It tasted like blood in the ocean, made him sick and hungry. His fingers found her hand, like it did so long ago. He squeezed.

                She left without saying another word.

 

                If asked, Kano, now much older than nineteen, would say that it was only a matter of time before he came back.

                The village isn’t at all the way it was when he left. It has given birth to a town. The road from the hill to the cove is paved, and cars travel on it. The house where he grew up with his mother, father and the girl is now a beautiful villa, a vacation home for tourists. He takes the money he would have used for school and finds a small room being let out by an old woman. Then, he buys a boat.

                The temple is gone.

                When he goes down to the cove, he is surprised to see that there aren’t as many boats. When he asks about the killing season, people drop their heads and do not reply. He knows what time of year it is, though. He can tell from the heat that builds in his blood and the glow that comes from the sky.

                He has shaped a harpoon. When he stands in his doorway, waiting for the moment to leave, the soft light from inside the house casts his shadow on the ground. The spear is heavy in one hand, and he holds it up and strikes at the ground, over and over. Ending and ending.

                He will always hunt the dolphins.             

Write-a-thon Story #1: The Beginning

Here is the first of the Black Carnival stories. I hope you enjoy it.

——

The day the Black Carnival showed up in our town, I was on my way to HR.

I took the stairs one slow step at a time, letting one loafer meet the other before taking the next descent down. I stared out the window to the outline of the city a few miles away down the interstate, counting cars on the highway as they moved like bubbles in a stream. The sky was a dream of an ocean somewhere far away, somewhere warmer: snow-laden blue clouds were touching the white hills, the sun nowhere to be seen.

Winter should have died a week ago, but it was holding on.

“Hey, Bill,” a voice said, coming down faster behind me. I shuffled a bit towards the banister and took a steadier walk down the steps, startled out of my staring.

“Hey, Rob.” Rob from accounting. I used to work with him in marketing, but then he got promoted, and I changed to the opening in Tech Support. That was all I knew of him; nobody could have asked me what his favorite dinner was or how many kids he had or… “How’s it going?”

Rob was about my same age but slimmer by about twenty pounds. I had been saying for months how I needed to lose weight, but with the added hours to my shifts with the integration of upgraded systems…management needed me on the clock more often than not. The gym would have to wait until the summer time maybe.  I matched his pace, hoping he hadn’t thought I was winded just going down the stairs…

“Did you see that crazy caravan out front?” he asked without the obligatory “fine, and yourself”-ing I found I had come to expect.

“Crazy caravan?”

“Yeah. Looks like some freaky Goth festival. Big black wagons, people in suits and top hats, burlesque chicks. It’s weird, dude. But I thought I’d tell you. Some of it looked like those doodles you used to do at your desk.”

“Oh, yeah, I don’t really do that anymore.”

“That’s too bad. They were pretty cool.”

I had stopped bringing my sketchpad to work when my supervisor saw me working on a figure drawing while on the phone. I was brought into her cube and told that I was not being paid to draw when I should be paying attention to customers’ concerns. That was a year ago, and even though she was gone now, so was the sketchpad. “Well, maybe I’ll check it out at lunch.”

We parted ways, and I plodded down the short hallway to Human Resources. Trey, the office manager, was waiting for me with his door open. I came in and sat down. “William, thanks for coming down,” he said as he sat down in his leather manager’s chair. His face was plastic, devoid of any genuine emotion I could read. I was about to close the door when suddenly Gwen, another face in HR, came in. I hadn’t interacted much with Gwen, but I knew that she was in charge of handling different difficult cases that came across corporate’s desk. Discrimination. Property damage.

Sexual harassment.

I felt myself pale, even though a small pixie-sized voice in my head was trying to remind me that I hadn’t done anything. I barely spoke to the women on my team, let alone other departments. Maybe that was the problem, I thought. Am I being accused of overlooking female coworkers? Does somebody think I’m sexist?

Gwen’s pen scratched loudly against the legal pad she brought with her. “No problem. No problem at all, Trey. What can I do for you?” I had meant to just say it, but it came out yelling.

Trey smiled toothily, like a Ken doll. “We just wanted to talk to you about a few things. How are you doing? Family doing well?”

“Oh fine,” I heard myself say, and I immediately had no idea why that was my response. I wasn’t married, had no children and I lived by myself in a one-bedroom apartment in the east end of the city. A tiny ember of hope lit up in the back corner of my brain as I thought for just a moment that maybe I wasn’t even supposed to be here. That maybe Frank or George or Ray, all of whom were married with at least two children, had been the ones who needed to be sitting down here, sweating. “You know. Same old Monday.”

I looked over at Gwen, trying for a smile or even just a flicker of acknowledgement. The corner of her mouth turned up for just a moment, like a comma, a pause, before Trey went on.

“I know how that is. Listen, William…” He laced his fingers tightly together, rested them on his desk for a second and looked down. “There’s something we want to talk to you about before anything…comes up. If it comes up at all, we’re not even sure…” He pointed at me with both his index fingers pressed together. “We just don’t want it to come as a surprise.”

I stared at him, not blinking, not breathing. If I was with someone, it would have been the point that I would have asked if she was okay. If either of my parents were still alive, I might have even asked if this was about their health. I glanced at Gwen again, this time with nothing in my eyes but obvious confusion. But now, she didn’t meet my gaze. She just reached into an envelope and pulled out a newspaper clipping, handing it to me.

FATHER OF 3 MISSING AFTER INCIDENT OF OFFICE RAGE.

My eyes picked out several lines as I could hear Trey’s level, studied voice in the background, going on like every sentence was from a script.

…after speaking with a tech support representative in another office…

…three thousand dollars in damages to company computers…

…caught on camera as he assaulted the office’s sixty-year-old security guard…

He hasn’t been seen since he left the building Thursday afternoon.

“We pulled your call,” Trey said, “and everyone agrees you didn’t do anything wrong, but –”

“What?” Again, I’m afraid I’ve yelled, but this time my volume only rises on its own, like a bike accelerating downhill. “What do you mean that I didn’t do anything wrong? What does this have to do with me?”

“Bill,” Gwen said, one hand touching my chair. Not me, just the padded arm. I realized it was the first thing she said since she came in. “You don’t remember talking to this man?”

My brain filed through the rolodex of names, problems, issues, callbacks, inbound calls I’d taken since Thursday of last week. I thought that maybe I had pinpointed him – a man calling in about his email service being down – but then, just as quickly, I remembered him saying how happy he was with the service.

The only reason I recalled that, I realize, was because it was the only positive feedback in those 48 hours of work.

“I talk to a lot of people every day,” I said.

“And none of them stand out to you? This one didn’t seem different?” I noticed that her eyes were a deep forest green. We had never looked at each other for longer than a passing glance and now…those emerald orbs were trying to puzzle out how I couldn’t remember this one voice.

“No,” I admitted. Shame coated the inside of my gut, thick and cold and slick like black ice. “I’m sorry.”

Trey cut in at that moment. “No,” he said. “There is nothing for you to be sorry about, William. We just didn’t want you to hear about this or have it come up in some…uncomfortable way. Don’t worry, the legal department will protect the company.”

He continued on, yammering about media disclosure and picking out several papers for me to sign. The whole time, I just stared at Gwen, but her eyes were back down on her notebook, each pressing stroke a judgment, each period a gavel dropping for the sentence against my humanity.

 

At first, I went back to my desk. My intention was to move on, to accept Trey’s insistence that I had done nothing wrong and to get behind the line of thought that I could not control how other people chose to react to things.

I made the mistake of logging back in. A beep in my headpiece signaled an incoming call, and I just said, “Hello.”

No name, no company title, no question.

There was nothing for a second. “Hi…um…is this the tech support line for-“

“Yes!” I knocked my pencil jar over on my desk, its contents exploding everywhere. “Yes, yes, I’m here. Sorry. Can I…help you?”

A sound came over like a short cough. “I don’t know, can you?”

The voice laughed. I didn’t. I started sweating again instead.

“Hello?”

“Please hold,” I gasped, and when I tried to hit the HOLD button, I slapped RELEASE. My supervisor was at my desk in the next 30 seconds. I was breathing like I had done laps around the parking lot, and I tried not to look at his face above the wall of my cube, sitting like the lost treasure of some cephalophore.

“Bill,” the head said. “Can I see you for a few minutes?”

Those few minutes later, I found myself out the door. I was told that HR had asked that I take the afternoon off, to take a few hours from my hoard of paid time off. “I told them that was fine, because we have everyone else here,” he had said, his face not changing, not even hinting at a soft reaction. I left without waiting for him to ask me how I was doing.

The wind kicked up from the east as I looked out over the parking lot to a field beyond. The green, overgrown grass shimmered in the breeze like a coastline, the white flowers pushed up and around like fish. Just beyond, I saw a line of black shapes, and I recalled what Rob had said about some caravan.

The long line of carts, boxcars, and tents on wheels stretched out for at least half a mile, or at least that’s how it looked like from where I was standing. I could just make out the hesitant stamping of impatient animals – horses, maybe, or oxen? – and figures were climbing from one cart to the other on suspended wooden walkways or ropes. A few of them were wearing skin-tight leotards or thin leggings, while others were wearing what looked like Victorian suits. Dresses even. Clothes that looked like they should have impeded them but they floated through the air effortlessly.

My eyes followed the line to the front, where there was something massive lying on the ground. There was a man, kneeling behind it, and a smaller figure. A child, maybe. They were working at the huge…thing. Whatever it was. It was big, round, like a rock or a sack or…

What was it?

I went to my car and had my hand on the door. There were a million and a half things I could do with the afternoon.

What was it?

I fingered my keys and for every tooth I could think of another chore that needed done around the apartment, some corner to clean, a something-or-another to put away.

What was it?

I got in the car and almost made it to the ignition. From my rearview mirror I could just see those two people and the thing on the ground. The giant thing.

It moved.

I was the tallest point in the field, and it made me feel exposed. Nervous. There was anything I could say, I’m sure. I didn’t have to say, “Sorry, but I needed to see what you were doing to ease my curiosity.” I got ready for someone to call the cops or for some bouncer to get in my face like I was trying to get in one of the cool clubs downtown. But it seemed that the opposite happened: everyone disappeared. There were no eyes on me, no fingers pointing. And as I finally got to where I was heading, I knew we were alone:

There was me.

There was what I could now see was a dwarf with only nine fingers.

There was the man – a long, dark, stone-faced shadow of a man.

And an elephant.

It moved on its side like it was walking in slow motion, as if its massive feet were running in mud. Its trunk waved and hit the ground now and then while a trickle of dark fluid ran down its cheek.

“Darwin, my boy…” the man was saying to the dwarf as he took a handkerchief – black silk – out of his vest pocket and wiped his hand with it. “It would seem our pachyderm has a leak.”

“A leak?” We both actually said it together, and that made the slate face rise up to me just slightly, the white of his eyes little stones shining at me. I waited for him to ask me what exactly I was doing there. What was I doing there?

“That’s right,” he rumbled. His voice sounded ancient and deep and dark. “A leak.”

I walked around the animal’s head to where he was kneeling, where I expected to find a gash or some rotting spot. Instead, what I saw was a mess of gears, mechanical bits and whirrs, a busted chain like on a bike. The entire inside of the elephant was exposed, and a stream of oil oozed to the ground.

“Mr. Kauffee, sir,” the dwarf said, his voice rising with a trill of panic. He shifted from one foot to the other, rubbing his small hands together. “What are we going to do if we can’t get her up?”

“The obvious, my lad,” the man said, picking up a stovepipe hat from the ground that added half a foot to his already long head and face. His eyes seemed to disappear under the rim. “Nothing. The Black Carnival will stay here, the storms will come and we will all surely meet our doom.”

I jumped when a rumble came from miles off, but when I looked out across the expanse of field and forest I couldn’t see a cloud in the sky. I shivered. “Can’t you call someone?” I found myself asking. Feeling like I was getting a bit too familiar, I added, “Can I call you someone?”

“I’m afraid not. The last of the artisans who could work their way through a clockwork elephant died out…a year or so ago now. And that one was in Moscow, I believe. Chechnya perhaps. Far across the sea.” He glanced out at the horizon, away from the city and to the farmlands and further.

“Maybe I can take a look.” The words came out of my mouth even as I was shaking my head. As if my heart had said it while my brain was certain I was an idiot.

“You?” Kauffee stood up. He was giant. So tall I was sure there had to be some trick involved. Something in his starchy pinstripes. “And who are you?”

“Bill.”

“And what are you, Bill?”

I licked my lips and tasted the beads of sweat. “I’m in tech support.”

He smiled in a way that almost made me think he could very well laugh in my face, and I wouldn’t blame him. “And do you think that line of expertise makes you qualified to mend a clockwork elephant, Bill?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never tried. But I’ve fixed a lot of watches.” That wasn’t true. I had only fixed one watch. I held up my wrist. I was wearing my grandfather’s 1926 Oyster Rolex that I had maintained through several poor circumstances, including being dropped out of a moving car by my father when he was a teenager, being stepped on by a horse during the Second World War and slipped down the toilet by my mother a few years before she died.

“Could he try?” Darwin asked.

Kauffee nodded once, thoughtfully, and took a step back. I got down on my knees – realizing too late that one went right into the goo coming from the gears – and set to work.

I don’t know what I did. I tinkered. I straightened. The drip of the grease slowed and then stopped altogether, a few minutes later. The elephant – Gretel was her name, I had discovered – moved more thoughtfully. Her head shook like she was waking out of a sleep, and then she was up on her feet. “Start the word,” Kauffee said to Darwin as he ran one hand along her leathery hide. “We leave in the hour.”

Darwin scurried away on his little legs, and suddenly I felt very small, between Gretel and Kauffee. There was another rumble, closer now, and Kauffee started towards the first, huge car. I looked up above the door he opened that said in spiraling, curly cursive: ESPRESSITUS KAUFFEE AND THE BLACK CARNIVAL.

“There will be space for you in the Angels’ wagon,” he said as he ducked his head through the doorway, the frame just missing his massive hat. “Darwin will see that you are supplied a blanket, food to eat and wine. You’ve earned it.”

“I beg your pardon?” The real world came back to me like a poorly-digested lunch. I looked back at my building in the distance, a small cardboard box. I remembered my car, my rent check.

“Wine, boy. Fine wine from Brazil. And dinner will be giant ants, peppers and goat cheese from a Pyrenean ibex I won in a poker game a year and a day ago in Gibraltar. From half of a Siamese twin.”

I suddenly found myself wondering if this was some great joke that had been orchestrated, if I wasn’t being filmed right now, and someone was going to jump out and scare the shit out of me. Or maybe I would just wake up at home, in bed.

Gretel suddenly trumpeted and started moving, nearly knocking Kauffee off his feet. “I suppose the winds have changed. Come along, man! Hurry now!”

The wheels were turning fast. Faster than it seemed Gretel was moving.

His black hand was out towards me from his wagon. “The storms wait for none! Quickly!”

I raised my own arm and got ready but then suddenly, he grabbed me, pulling me up so quick I screamed but only for a moment. I could smell a heady roasty smell about him, as if he had been aged for hundreds of years. His laughter filled my ears and my heart as the Black Carnival sped forward, into the woods and the world and, with me, was gone.

I CAN DO ZAT: The Clarion West Write-a-thon

Guys, real talk for a second. Recently, I’ve been having a hard time relaxing. All week, I was looking forward to the opportunity to just sit for a while and lose myself in nothing. That didn’t happen. I would sink into my chair and then jolt so hard I thought I might panic. Then I realized it was just a voice in my head saying, “You know, you could clear off that shelf. Or put away those things in that other place.”

Today marks the start of the Clarion West Write-a-thon for me (and many others, I’m sure, but whose blog is this? THAT’S RIGHT. MINE.). You can check out my page here which is also where you can donate. And you should donate.

As you can see, my goal for this write-a-thon is to release stories that will be compiled into a collection of Black Carnival tales. Now, some of you may be just going, “Huh, that sounds neat.” Other of you know that this is truly very, very exciting.

The Black Carnival is a modern magical realism setting I’ve been using in short stories for the past several years. The world is reminiscent of late 19th/early 20th century traveling circuses but with the added element that the Black Carnival travels through present-day America. It blends human conflict with fantastical creatures, portrays the personal spirit with magic and wonder. It’s pretty cool; trust me.

So, starting this week, please keep an eye out here as I release these stories. Let me know what you think, what you would like to see. I’m wide open, and I hope you will be too.

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