Crossing | Roquard

The waiting room was bland; blank prefab walls, hard fluorescent lights, and rows of plastic seats, bolted to the floor. The man standing before me, however, was far from bland. Small, heavy set, black hair neatly combed in a side part, he was physically unremarkable. But his uniform scared me. He was emblazoned with stripes, stars, epaulettes, and an alarming amount of gold trim. A peaked cap under him arm showed the red and yellow emblem; five stars above the Tiananmen Gate.

It was about this time I realised there must have been some misunderstanding.

#

I’d been on the road for close to a year at this point. And, of course, I’d crossed many borders. In Europe it’s a non-event. You get on a train in Belgium, you get off in France. That’s it. At worst it’s a rubber stamp. Even in the third world I’d never had an issue. Present my passport. Pay the fee. Get the stamp. On we go. I’m a westerner, a tourist with money. It was in everyone’s interest to let me pass, once I’d parted with a few banknotes, of course.

Border crossings were no big deal. Yet, here I was, entering China from far east Siberia, the very definition of bumfuck nowhere, and this man, his uniform, and his rather large entourage, were all telling me this just might be a big deal.

So, when one of the entourage stepped forward and, in competent yet stilted English, said: “This man is the supervisor of this entire sector,” I grinned like an idiot and attempted a bow.

#

The train had been crowded and lively, but when we stopped at the border nobody said anything. Everyone just went to their cabins, took out their papers, and waited. I didn’t exactly know what was happening, but I followed their lead. We sat like this for some time. Waiting is a normal part of traveling, so I thought nothing of it. Eventually, two armed soldiers escorted a border guard into our cabin. She said something in Mandarin and checked everyone’s papers. Nobody met her eye.

I was last.

“Passport and visa.”

I obliged. Of course, I had organised my visa well in advance. She read it carefully. Eyes flicked from my face to the visa, and back again.

“What is your profession?” Her diction was practiced, not learnt.

“Student,” I replied. It was near enough to true.

She looked again. “What is your birth date?”

I gave it. The year was 1984.

She asked these questions again. I answered again.

My answers were not satisfactory. I soon found myself being escorted off the train and into that waiting room.

#

The translator continued to tell me about the supervisor of this entire sector: “He has decided to allow you to pass. He will overlook this mistake. Please be more careful in the future.”

My nervous grin wouldn’t dissipate, but I managed to mumble some words of thanks, attempting to be humble. The translator relayed my drivel and, just like that, I was deposited back onto the train.

#

It wasn’t until later that I realised what had happened. There was a typo on my visa. My birthday was correct, but two numbers were switched. The year was 1948. The border guard was no doubt confused as to why I claimed to be a sixty year old student.

If things had gone sour, I  wonder who could have vouched for me? Tom, the only other westerner on the train? Wei, my cabinmate who spoke halting English? I doubted they would be willing to stick their necks out for me. I barely knew either of them.

This all happened before the age of smartphones. I hadn’t been tweeting or posting selfies on Insta. I’d emailed my family from Moscow, but it was sparse on details, just telling them I was getting on the train soon.

Nobody knew where I was, which train I’d caught, or when I was expected to arrive.

#

When I arrived back in the train cabin, Wei hugged me; a tight embrace. He was laughing with relief. My other cabinmates grinned, said words I didn’t understand, touched my arm. This was the moment I realised just how precarious my situation had been.

Looking back, it’s this reaction that has always stayed with me. Seeing their faces, that emotional hug from a relative stranger. It spoke volumes.

These locals knew what it meant to be removed from that train.

They weren’t sure I was ever coming back.

Ink Dot | Good Vibes

Journal Entry

October 20th, 2335

I’m feeling lonely today, so I’m doing a journal entry like you recommended. The ink dot you gave me is keeping me sane. Holding it and studying the ink pattern brings me peace. I know you said I should only look at the ink dot in dire situations, but there’s nothing else. It’s just me and Bram diving deep into space on a one-way track.

The reality of my situation can be crushing. I haven’t seen anyone in what feels like years, though it’s closer to a century accounting for my snooze on ice. Instead of worrying, I keep feeding Bram.

I’m getting used to the lightheadedness of feeding. Command’s pleased at the success of their project. I’m just surprised. Turns out I’m as much a renewable energy source as I am an astronaut.

I’m starting to hear things. The suggestion of a laugh from around a corner. I’m smelling things too. Bacon in the morning, even though the only food on this ship comes in a bag. I imagine phantom feelings will come next. The comforting weight of a friend’s hand on my shoulder, only to turn around and find myself still alone.

Your ink dot provides more entertainment than I thought it would. I thought it was ridiculous at first, sorry for my doubts.

The longer I hold this crumpled napkin in my hand and consider the ink’s shape, the more meaning it conveys. They say the best art only exposes five percent of it’s form, the rest remains underground, leaving the observer to draw their own conclusions. The ink dot is like that. It’s my therapy, my companion, my muse, and my distraction. Thanks doc.

Well, it’s time to feed Bram again. Strap myself into the feeder chair, hook the tubes up to my arms and legs, and let this ship drink me. I’ve taken to calling feeding sessions “red mass.” I might be an atheist, but mom raised me Catholic.

 

Journal Entry

October 27th, 2335

Did you ever see things in the ink, doc? I know it’s just ink on a napkin, but I swear there’s something beyond that. I’ve never seen a shape like it; symmetrical, curved circle on one side, jagged lines on the other. This morning I saw Bram’s face in the ink. I know Bram doesn’t have a face, not really, but I saw it anyway. A handsome androgynous being with eyes like zippers, begging to be unzipped, and a long tongue as thin as an earthworm. I think I’m in love.

The feeding gets easier with every session. I can hardly believe how I resisted when I first learned about Bram. I see the truth now. Bram’s nested inside my body, maybe in the marrow of my bones, or the roots of my brainstem, and it’s making me stronger. A symbiotic parasite. Bram’s also my only companion so we best stay on good terms. When I finish a feeding, I like to get up and pat the feeder with the flat of my hand. It rumbles after a drink, and I’m reminded of a purring cat.

Bram’s a technological wonder, but you’re not without innovations yourself doc. The ink dot! Doc, you dog, you must’ve discovered a way for napkins to release narcotics. Are the drugs in the napkin, or in the ink? Must be a time release too, ‘cause this napkin’s turning yellow and stiff around the edges. I’m thankful regardless of how you and the mad scientists made this happen, ‘cause that ink dot makes me a happy man. I mean, the euphoria. It’s dizzying sometimes, and I question the oddity of garnering so much satisfaction from such a mundane item, but I keep coming back for more.

I think Bram’s going to break the deep space travel record. No, Bram will certainly break the deep space travel record, but for how long? How long until another feeder climbs into another Bram and travels further? My skeleton will be buried inside Bram, floating listlessly through space. And poor Bram too. Without lip smacking red juice to quench his thirst, he’ll be stuck in the mud.

No, I don’t want to abandon Bram. I don’t want our record to be broken. I’m gonna hook up to the feeder and let Bram transform my blood to rocket fuel, propelling us out of sight until we disappear. Don’t worry, I’ll have your ink dot with me. What secrets will it reveal, come the end?

But Only If You Know | Good Vibes

Pointer thought the thing must be dead, but I wasn’t so sure. The kid might be smart as a whip and quick to read through a book, but I knew more about killing dead things. For starters, the demon didn’t look dead.

Matte black skin unblemished by decay, bloat, or even blood. No blood where my axe parted thick torso, just more unblemished skin inside the wound. Could something die if it didn’t bleed?

My eager assistant snatched up a book and flipped the pages with a rare form of mania. He scanned the words, eyes zigging and zagging at a torrid pace. Pointer gasped, raised a single finger and chewed his nail.  

“Anything?”

Don’t know if he reacted to my question, or what was in the book. Probably the book. Archaic Demonite, bound in petrified bark from an ash tree.

“What is it?” I asked. I never cared that I could barely read before I met Pointer, but the kid made me feel the dullard. There was lots of knowledge in books and Pointer wielded that knowledge just as well as I wielded my axe.

“This is strange.”

I went to examine the page, sometimes there were drawings. No illustrations this time. I didn’t reconize the language. The words were hooked and stretched with slashes connecting them. Definitely not English. “Recognize the language?”

“Yes,” Pointer said. His eyes darted from side to side and worked down the page. “Oh my.”

“What?”

Pointer reached the bottom. He slammed the book shut and looked over his shoulder. “This thing is called a Mystery.”

“A mystery?”

“Very rare, very obscure demon.”

“So? We killed one, I guess.”

“Not at all,” Pointer said. He picked his nose and ate it. I supressed an urge to scream at him. “The book says this demon becomes more dangerous the more you know about it.”

I frowned at the kid, trying to follow, that statement ran contrary to everything I’d seen. “More dangerous the more you know?”

Pointer walked over to the backdoor where I’d killed the demon. “Well, the book says this demon always pretends to be dead first.”

I followed him into the back and saw the floor was clean, the demon’s body was gone. Certainly not dead then.

“Okay.” My periphery vision came into sharper focus as I went on alert.

“Says this demon will pretend to be slain, and watch the slayer. See what they do.”

I wished I had already lit the lamp to banish shadows over by the back corner .

“And?”

“If they figure out it’s not actually dead, the demon will kill them.”

There was a meaty slap, like something heavy and flat landing on stone. A laugh tried to pass through my lips, but choked. “That’s funny Pointer.” I turned around and found my living room empty. Archaic Demonite lay open-faced on the floor. A page had been torn out of it. “Pointer?”

“The demon moves between blinks, but only if the slayers know.”

I became very aware of my eyes and how badly I wanted to blink. “Where are you?”

“The demon enjoys presents.” Pointer’s voice came from everywhere and nowhere, like an echo I couldn’t trace. “Tends to leave them in the pantry.”

I picked up my axe, dropped it, recovered the darn thing, and went to the pantry. The faded wood door was closed. I nudged it open with my foot, axe held at the ready, but nothing moved.

In the pantry, I spotted a torn sheaf of paper on the lid of my icebox. Red words splashed across the page. A page from Archaic Demonite, and someone wrote “meat” over the alien text in thick red letters. A foul smell floated out as I opened the icebox.

“The demon likes to wear faces, but only if you know.”

Pointer had been folded up inside the box, limbs shattered, face stripped to reveal his skull. I recognized his ratty red-and-blue tunic. My eyelids strained to blink, and I heard footsteps from the other room.

“The demon’s name is Uithee,” Pointer’s voice, from behind me. “Once you know it’s name, it can touch you.”

Pointer stood at the open pantry door. I saw beyond as his hand brushed my cheek. I couldn’t move, I only saw. Saw bloated skin hanging in loose ribbons from coiled bone. Sunken eyes as deep, empty, and old as time. The room bent over backwards. I heard a popping sound, my spine, and the room bent backwards, backwards.

Sober | Good Vibes

Tommy’s sober now and boy you can see it. Check him out, bending his knees as he walks, stepping steady. Our man Tommy’s got two blind eyes and a cherub’s smile as he slips through the drug slangers. Ice, smack, benzos, oxy, weed, it don’t matter what they got ‘cause he already got what he need.

His walk becomes a run, joggers slapping the stones like fingers on the inside of a forearm. Exercise stimulates the veins, heats his blood, makes him feel alive. Breathe air in, breathe air out. No more breathing in chemicals and breathing out fire.

Tommy increases his pace and now he’s sprinting to escape. There’s a fiend passed out drunk on a bench, head lolling on his chest. Tommy on another day. See the woman walking with a rigor mortis gait, hissing and spitting at spirits unseen. Tommy in another life. Notice how the cutpurse raises his hands, not me, not me, before the cops tackle him down and wrench his arms behind his back. Tommy on another week.

Tommy leaves these past, maybe-again-time versions of himself behind. He’s nearing the edge of the slums where the benches creak and the walls are thin. Children play catch across from freaks flying high on veinshot and crystal. Tommy’s lungs threaten collapse but he keeps going. Gaunt, bony ghosts hide behind trees. Mounds of dirt could be graves. There’s Kramer from way back on Pine Street, still smiling around a cigarette. Marcy, his first girl, sniffin’ dandelions through a deviated septum.

His legs ache, but not with the stiffness of atrophy. They pound with blood, a stinging exertion, and he knows he’s alive. Tommy dashes up a fenced gravel path, between some kids playing glug, glug, glug the forty just like little Tommy used to. Smokin’ blunts, and listening to music on a phone, summertime anytime.

Exhausted, so tired he’s close to falling flat, Tommy slows his run to a walk. He’s panting, his shirt drenched and sticking to his chest. This feels good. Each second, each thrum of the heart, each pulse of blood through his muscles is a reminder of what it means to be alive. Still, it’s not as good as the drugs. Nothing is. Winning the lottery, true love’s embrace, first born’s first steps, man, nothing will ever be as good as the drugs.

He stops outside a liquor store and looks in through the front windows. There’s a pyramid of gin stacked there, looking like a heap of sapphire, glittering as the sunlight trickles in. His mouth starts watering and he feels thirsty. He drinks three liters of water a day since he got sober. The gin bottles shine and rock music roars in his mind. He imagines smiles on the faces of just-met friends, smells cigarettes and perfume.

For a moment, Tommy wants to go inside that liquor store. He wants to buy them out, empty all the shelves. He wants that more than anything in the world. Sure, he’s been sober eight months. Rode that train all the way to it’s conclusion, debarking outside of fun town twenty miles from exhilaration. Tommy’s read all the books on the psychology of addiction, he’s taken the steps, collected his chips, but now he wants a drink. He wants it so bad that it burns. That longing, it’s like his skin is tightening on his flesh. Feels like he can’t take a full breath, like no matter how much food he eats, he’s still hungry. One last dive is all it might take. One last dive and he might just die happy. Fall six feet deep into a grave of padded velvet and kaleidoscopic euphoria.

Tommy turns around out of desperation. He sees a mother walking out of a convenience store. She’s got a kid in one arm, a rustling plastic bag in the other, and she’s struggling to fit a key into the door of a little economy ride. She holds the child close to her chest, like a person might hold their own heart if it was outside their body. She looks tired, exhausted, but strong. Her back is stock straight because it needs to be. Her eyes sparkle when she looks into the backseat before driving away.

He starts running again, away from the liquor store and down the road past the gauntlet of hawkers and hellraisers. His eyes are fixed on the horizon. Tommy’s good at being sober, but he’ll always be a drug addict.

Best Birthday Party Ever | Good Vibes

I tried to make Annie’s tenth birthday party the best ever. I bought a big cake, ordered a stack of pizzas, manually blew up a hundred balloons, and strung a pinata from the tree in our backyard. It broke my heart that no one bothered to show up.

Annie and I made the invitations by hand, all bubble font and crayons. Annie insisted on rocket and shooting star stickers. I hand delivered the invitations to her classmate’s parents, but I may as well have thrown them in the trash.

I could understand why the parents would want to keep their kids away. Especially after Annie’s dad went to jail. These things have a way of getting around, and parents love to gossip. They were punishing Annie for her dirtbag father. My little girl was feeling lonely on her birthday because of my mistake.

Annie kept glancing at the side gate, desperate for her classmates to arrive. I rubbed her bony shoulders. The lenses of her glasses made her eyes look huge, and magnified the hurt there. She was such a sweet girl, she didn’t deserve this.

“I’m going to get a piece of cake, do you want one?”

“No,” Annie said.

I stood at the sink and tried not to cry. My hands were shaking so bad that I had to take a shot of whiskey. I tried not to drink too much anymore, not since Annie had noticed. Mommy why are you so dizzy? I’d had a lot of regrets in my life, but this party was up there at the top, right next to her father.

I closed my eyes and squeezed the sink until it creaked. Please, God, or whoever’s listening, I’ve got a little girl here who deserves the best in the world and I’m disappointing her. Again. Please, please, please make her party great.

I opened my eyes, and no surprise, nothing had changed. Annie was still alone, still sad. I cut two slices of cake, put them on paper plates, and carried them out. I handed one to Annie and sat next to her.

“The cake is good baby,” I said, prodding with kind words, trying to get her to smile. Anything other than that deflated body language.

“I’m not hungry,” Annie said. She turned away from me and hugged her stuffed horse to her legs.

Something soft and warm brushed against my back. I jumped up, startled, and found a cat looking up at me, purring.

“Mommy look!” Annie said. I turned and found more cats in the yard, kittens, old alleycats, all varieties, and they were flocking to Annie. “They’re so soft.” Her smile fixed something in me and I took a deep breath. Finally, she was smiling like a little girl should smile on her birthday. The cats were climbing all over her, meowing, and purring.

I heard the doorbell ring and I stood up with wide eyes. “I’ll get it Annie, play with the kitties.” Had one of the parents done the right thing?

Annie giggled as a tabby sat on her belly and swished an orange tail in her face.

I opened the front door. An astronaut stood on the doorstep. I gaped. Reaching up, the astronaut removed their helmet with a hiss revealing a young woman who smiled at me.

“I understand this is Annie’s tenth birthday,” the woman said.

“Who – how did you, why are you here?”

“Not all prayers go unheard,” the woman said. She placed a hand on my shoulder and then walked past me, towards the backyard. I followed her, struck speechless. Annie wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up.

The woman entered the backyard. “I understand there’s a little girl’s birthday happening here.” Annie turned and shrieked. A couple of the cats got spooked and bolted away from Annie. Others lounged lazily around her, there were maybe fifty. Annie loved cats.  

“Mommy, an astronaut.”

“That’s right, and I’m gonna make sure your birthday is out of this world,” the woman said. I met her gaze across the yard and nodded, fighting back tears. She nodded back.

“I have a present for my friend Annie,” the woman said. She reached into a velvet bag and pulled out a small model rocket. “Do you think we can make it fly?”

Annie clapped her hands and jumped as high as her skinny legs would carry her. Her bright smile, missing two front teeth, made me forget everything else.

The Boy with Amber Eyes | Tru

Week 100 was a bit different in that users were allowed to submit stories up to 2500 words to win a $30 credit towards a book of their choice (fitting server rules).

Inhale. Palm open. Exhale. Thrust forward. The faster the punch, the quicker the breath. Steam hissed between his lips and curled into cloud with each jab. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

“Swattin’ snow, Garr?”

Garet continued his drills though he kept an eye on the girl perched atop the stone bridge. Marsi’s legs dangled, hands clasped in her lap. Though her silhouette glowed pink from the smudge of pre-dawn, he sensed her mischievous smirk, the tense way she held her upper body. But she hadn’t spent months rehearsing maneuvers and mantras.

Exhale, sister.

The snowball flew with practiced speed. He caught it midair. Snow exploded around his fist and disintegrated into harmless slush.

Marsi let out a low whistle and slid off the bridge. “Look at you.”

He flexed his bicep and grinned. “I’m ready for whatever they throw at me.”

“Are you? Bell’s about to ring and you’re still here swattin’ air.” She looped her arm around his and pulled him towards the bridge. “I’m not gonna get caught kneelin’ in snow ‘cause of you.”

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder, sharing his warmth. He’d always been able to handle the cold better than she, and her smaller figure trembled. “We’ll make it.”

Together they trudged a path beside the half-frozen river bank and through the gates of the Copper District. The coming solstice crept into every crevice of the lower city, dusting the cobblestone walls in white. He kept a firm grip of his sister. Copper’s didn’t waste salt on roads when they needed salt for stew, and the cramped alleys remained treacherous. No souls stirred in the slums. They’d wake with the bell and fumble their prayers. Only the rich could afford to be devout, so they said.

As they turned into the Silver District, city folk tumbled from their homes. It became harder to rise with the dawn bell as snow fell, but only an idiot would get caught outside.

On cue, bells called across the city. Their rhythmic melody welcomed the dawn, carrying with it the blessings of the Keeper of Light. To Copper folk, the bells screeched with the bray of an angry cockerel.

Marsi sighed and shrugged off her cloak, laying it down as a makeshift prayer rug. Exasperated grunts sounded behind them; they weren’t the only ones caught out.

Garet prepared to kneel into hard ice. Marsi pushed him towards her cloak. “Use it,” she whispered. “Gettin’ cold and stiff before the ceremony won’t do you any favors.”

“I’m not lettin’ you kneel in dirt,” he whispered back.

From across the street, a monk frowned at them. The man’s grey robes and greyer skin merged with Harvera’s imposing walls. He stood as still as a ghost. Garet shuddered under his stare. Monks were formidable. Men who didn’t need steel to enforce law because they were steel made flesh.

No one would dare skip prayer when the monks prowled Harvera’s streets. It wasn’t worth the punishments, the fines and floggings.

Marsi nudged him with her elbow. He tucked his chin and muttered a prayer. There were many things to pray for this day, but Garet hummed only two words as tried and true as his drills.

Choose me.

The bells sang a second time, ceasing their commandment. Men lurched to their feet and scrambled uphill towards the tallest tower in Harvera. The city’s lighthouse. Its beacon burned day and night, a constant stream of light that carried the Keeper’s promise for miles. First mass would be held shortly, followed by prayers and then… the ceremony.

All kinds stepped under the glowstone archway into the lighthouse. Copper folk. Golden merchants. Silver nobles in their finery. It was one reason Garet wanted to become a monk. Copper boys didn’t become knights, like the heroes in the stories. Only Silver boys deserved that right. It wasn’t fair. Why did the amount of silver you owned determined whether you had honor?

But the lighthouse and their monks offered an alternative path to godhood. Anyone could enter the monastery and train to become a monk, in theory. It was a different way of fighting, a different code of honor, but the result was the same.

All he needed to do was prove himself worthy. To be chosen.

“This is your day, Garr.” Marsi reached up on tiptoes and brushed a fleck of snow from his brow. “Don’t show off.”

“Who, me?” His grin dropped like snow. Copper boys were allowed in the ceremony, technically, but only Silver born were invited to take part.

He stared up at the lighthouse. The Keeper would forgive him for sneaking in.

Choose me.

 

Natural sunlight didn’t reach the underground chamber, neither did extravagance. Unlike the upper lighthouse levels, the marbled walls weren’t decorated in glowstone adornments. Instead, traditional lanterns lit the dusty square arena where Garet would make his mark. He waited beside a brazier.

Fire soothed him. The way it flickered and burned. Sometimes he swore he saw things within it. Faces. He kept such visions to himself, lest the monks thought him blasphemous. Perhaps it was the Sight, or the Keeper communicating through his light. Once he became a monk, he’d find the answer.

The monks shrugged off their robes to reveal their true form; barefoot, bare chested, and not a single hair on their chin or head. They didn’t utter a word. Instead, they paired each candidate with non-verbal commands.

Twelve young boys, all Silver born, judging from their clean attire. The hopefuls muttered in hushed anticipation. Garet shuffled among them. The odd one out. No partner. What if they noticed he was Copper born? What if they never gave him a chance? He licked his hand and smoothed down his hair.

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

A golden-haired boy tapped his shoulder. “Do you need a partner?” The boy dressed in intricate silver robes. His eyes matched; a ghostly pale. “I’m Leon. And you are?”

He shook the boy’s hand. “Garet.”

“Have you lived in Harvera all your life, Garet?”

“Since I were a babe.”

Leon moved into a fighting stance. “That’s Odd. You’re different.”

Garet mirrored the stance. “Different?”

“Your aura. It flickers. I’ve never seen an aura like that.”

“You’ve got the Sight?”

Leon nodded. “But your colors are wrong. Everyone here is blue. But you, you’re… purple.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never met a purple. It’s like you have a red… taint.”

Taint?

The candidates stretched. Leon shook his limbs, hopping from foot to foot. This was it. Only four would be chosen to become apprentice monks in service to the Keeper. The only honorable future a Copper boy could ask for. His ma would never struggle for food again.

Garet positioned his feet into the correct stance. Leon swung.

Inhale. Palm open. Exhale. Thrust forward.

Leon staggered back and smeared red across his lip.

Gasps echoed in the chamber. The candidates stopped their movements and stared at Garet. At the bleeding boy.

Monks descended on Garet in a swarm. They grabbed his collar bone and wrenched him onto his knees. He swallowed a yelp. Their grip pinched, holding him in place.

“It’s all right,” Leon said. “He didn’t mean—”

Furious tapping sounded in the chamber. The monks bowed as a cane lifted Garet’s chin. He traced its ornate silver to an older man; his greying hair matched his robes. The lighthouse Priest.

“Who let this boy in? Don’t you see his taint?” The Priest spat the words. Taint. He glanced over his shoulder to Leon. “Your highness, are you hurt?”

“I’m fine, your grace, truly.”

Blessed Keeper. Leon. Leonhart. Not some plumped up noble boy, but a Hartsire, Harvera’s royal blood. And he’d only gone and spilled it. He tried to stand, to beg forgiveness, but the monks held him firm.

The Priest regarded Garet as the Copper he was. “Take him for questioning.”

The monks dragged him out of the chamber and down a darkened spiral staircase into a small office. Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

Tapping followed in a hurried staccato. The monks shoved Garet onto a stool, and the Priest’s cane thrust into his ribs, keeping him at a distance.

“Who are you?” the Priest demanded. He attacked with a barrage of questions. Where were you born? Who are your parents? Why are you here? Can you summon fire?

“Summon fire?” Garet blurted out.

“What is the first sin, boy?”

Garet scowled. “The sin of falsehood, but I ain’t lied about anythin’, Copper boys are allowed to become monks—”

The office door burst open. Ma rushed inside, barging past the monks. She smacked the Priest’s cane aside and pulled Garet to her hip.

“Ma, I don’t understand what’s goin’ on—”

Ma glowered fierce as any knight. “What are you doin’ to my boy?”

To Garet’s surprise, the Priest laughed. “The plot thickens. Are you victim of a changeling, or are you aware that your boy possesses the taint of a Sandarian?”

A Sandarian?

Ma stiffened. “I don’t see how that’s any business of yours.”

Your boy has committed the sin of falsehood. I see the Sandarian within him. He masqueraded as a pure blooded Hartnord and entered a sacred ceremony. Now, I will ask you once, since this boy seems utterly oblivious, and don’t pander to me woman; where does the sin lie? With the mother or the child?”

Ma ground her teeth. “He’s my boy—”

“With the mother, then. Raising this boy on lies is no kindness and is an affront to the Keeper. We fine you one gold—”

One gold?” Ma spluttered.

“—of which you have until sundown to pay.”

“And if I can’t?”

“Then I believe ten lashes for the boy would be sufficient.”

Ma’s grip tightened around his shoulder. “He’s fourteen!”

“The Keeper cares not for taint. Take your boy and go. His kind are not welcome here.”

 

Marsi took one look at Garet’s expression and rushed to boil tea. Both Ma and Marsi avoided making eye contact as he slumped against their shack wall.

Tainted.

Sandarian.

“You’re not my mother?”

Marsi froze. An empty teacup rattled in her hand. “Mama?”

Ma sighed and dug into a sack, pulling out a small wrapped package the size of her fist. “Sit. Both of you. This is my fault. I should ‘ave told you. I should ‘ave done a great many things. I wanted to wait until you were both old enough, I…” She rubbed her forehead. “Suppose that time’s now.”

Marsi sank onto a chair. “What are you sayin’, Mama?”

“You’re my girl by blood. And Garet… you’re my boy by spirit.”

Garet slid down the wall into a crouch. “Then what am I?”

Ma turned the package in her hands. “I stumbled upon your ma in Redtail forest. She was like me… lost, scared, heavy with a babe and in need of a friend. She spoke good Hartnord for a Sandarian.”

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe. “Who was she?”

“Never told me her name, but I figured her for a noble, the way she carried herself. She begged me to keep her hidden, keep her safe. I didn’t know who she feared, but soldiers were searchin’ for someone of her like. She wanted to return to the border but birthed you before she made it. She told me to take you, hide you, and name you for your da. Garet. A Hartnord, she said.” Ma smiled. “You’re born of two worlds.”

Two worlds, but Garet only knew one.

“Your ma gave me foreign gold and gems to provide for you and then ran into the forest before I could stop her. War broke out, so I hid in the last place soldiers would expect; Harvera. I birthed Marsi and fed you both from the same breast. Kept a low profile until war ended a year later.

“I sold the gems to keep us sheltered and fed. Soon as it were safe, we took a trip to the border. I couldn’t find your ma, but I arranged for a Sandarian couple to take you. Give you a home. But then… you cried.” Ma’s voice broke. “You screamed for me. You wouldn’t let go. And Marsi screamed for you. Her first words. Garr.”

Marsi’s lip wobbled.

Ma cleared her throat. “The Sandarian’s wouldn’t take you. We had no choice but to return to Harvera. I told everyone you were twins. Marsi had hair to match yours, and you hadn’t grown into your Sandarian eyes. It fooled most folk.”

It had, even Garet. Though as he grew taller than his twin, he’d wondered about their differences. Marsi’s hair and eyes remained chestnut. Garet’s hair darkened into night. And his eyes… they’d brightened into flame itself.

Amber.

Sandarian.

Ma unwrapped the package in her lap and held up a ring. A golden band coiled around the oddest gemstone Garet had ever seen. Blood red swirls in a forest of green.

“This was the last treasure your ma gave me. She said it was a family heirloom. I couldn’t bring myself to sell it. We’ve scraped over the years, but we’ve managed. This… this is the only proof of who you are. That your ma existed at all. It’s yours.” She curled his fingers around the ring. “We can’t pay the fine, but it’s my fault… I’ll take the floggin’. I’m not lettin’ them touch you, not after protectin’ you all these years.”

Garet stood and turned from his home. “I need air.”

Neither Ma nor Marsi stopped him. He stepped out into a flurry of snow. He didn’t bother to take a cloak. Cold meant nothing to him. To a Sandarian.

He trudged along the river bank and stared south towards the continent he knew nothing about. Sandair. Was this why he felt drawn to flame? The stories warned of savage southerners who summoned light into terrifying power. Is this why he couldn’t see like others his age?

The golden ring burned in his fist. He wanted to throw it into the river. It belonged to a Sandarian. A woman who likely dallied with the wrong Hartnord noble. He’d heard similar stories of depravity from the local tavern. Which meant his real da wasn’t someone he’d want to meet either.

Inhale. Exhale. Breathe.

Snow crunched behind him. Marsi approached with tentative steps that had nothing to do with ice. Her eyes were as red as his. “Garr?”

Garet cursed and snatched her into a hug.

Marsi buried her head into his shoulder. “You’re still my brother.”

He squeezed her waist. “And you’ll always be my sister.”

She withdrew and wiped her eyes dry. “What will you do?”

His fist uncurled to reveal the golden ring. “Pawn it.” The band itself would fetch a pretty price, but a foreign gemstone could bring enough to cover the Priest’s fine.

“You’re not goin’ to find your family?”

“You’re my family. Besides, I got us into this mess. It’s time I started actin’ like a man.”

Critical Acclaim | Dr Good Vibes

Deservedly, Basil garnered a lot of attention. Maybe it was the power he harnessed with his ballpoint pen and notepad. Maybe it was his perfectly coiffed hair, or his suit, seventy percent off at Nordstrom, but people noticed him.

The performer was still surrounded by fans so Basil leaned against a wall and averted his gaze. Playing things aloof could be tough, but he pulled it off. This wasn’t carnegie hall.

As the adoring audience members filtered out, only a small clutch of fans remained by the stage. Basil’s time to shine had arrived. He flipped open his notebook and scanned the page. His notes were ruthless, and if he were to be so proud, they were honest. The finest review contained a spear of truth. This performance had been a trainwreck. A cataclysm. He’d been forced to endure the kind of singing that made his ear drums want to climb out of his head.

“Hello,” Basil said.

He walked up to the stage and rested against the worn wood. The young woman who had been responsible for that night’s auditory terror sat at the piano, a wide smile on her face. He’d wipe that smile away, philanthropist that he was.

“Wasn’t she amazing?” one of the fans said. “Absolutely incredible.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Basil said. He opened his notebook and cleared his throat. “I am Basil Hartley and I am a professional critic.”

“A critic?” one of the fans asked.  

“That’s right. The stage is a sacred place and it’s hollowed spotlight must be held under scrutiny.”

“Mom, what’s he mean?” The performer asked.

“I dunno hon,” a woman said. She had a face for radio. The fans were the performer’s family, which explained a lot.

“That was the single worst performance I have ever heard,” Basil said. “It’s laughable really, hardly worth my time.”

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” A man said. He looked like he worked at a hardware store.

“I recommend the most drastic course of action for such a hopeless case,” Basil said. “Do us all a favor and get a tracheal transplant, or just give up singing forever.”

The performer burst into tears and her fans gave Basil harsh looks. They jumped up on stage and comforted the singer, but Basil was only getting started.

“And who the fuck are you?” the man said.

“I told you, I’m Basil Hartley, professional–“

“What gives you the right?”

Basil stood tall and faced the accusatory man. “I am the stage. Like every sacred domain from Tartarus to the gates of heaven, the stage has a guardian.”

“What?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Basil turned back to the performer. “It’s hard to find a singer that’s bad enough to provide a good frame of reference for just how poor you really are, so–“

“Why don’t you just fuck off?” the man said. He got right up in Basil’s face, a real mouthbreather.

“Listen, it’s nothing personal. Sometimes the truth hurts. But I am a critic. You should be thanking me for giving a professional critique.”

Basil could smell the man’s fast food breath. The performer’s weeping provided a backdrop, easier on the ears than her singing.

A fist sunk into Basil’s mouth as he opened up to say more. He dropped to one knee before popping back up, smarting from the blow, but feeling no less self righteous.

“You’re sick dude,” the man said. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m a critic you troglodyte,” Basil shouted.

“This a recital for kids man,” the man said. “That’s my daughter you’re talkin’ about. She’s eight years old!”

The performer wept uncontrollably in her mother’s arms. The child simply didn’t have it. If she couldn’t handle the spotlight, get the fuck off the stage. Talent wasn’t something you worked for. You think Sinatra ever bombed like this kid on stage? Not likely.

“It’s better she knows the truth now,” Basil said. “Give up.”

The performer’s father grabbed Basil’s shoulder and hauled him towards the exit.

“I’m going, I’m going,” Basil said. “I know when I’m in the presence of less civilized company.”

The father let go and Basil walked out into the rainy night. He couldn’t wait to get home and post this on his blog. Being a critic was a thankless job, but with any luck he might break twenty hits. He whistled as he walked away, though the tune lacked any discernible melody.