Elliott Bell

writer, poet, artist, expat

Category: Flash Fiction

Falling into Darkness

Falling Stone waited, his pale skin glinting in the moonlight, seated on the front step of the woodshed where he lived. The small glow of a moonstone bobbed gently, downhill from him but coming closer, the greenish-blue light increasing it brightness as it neared. Finally, they were there. A lanky, dark-skinned man in narrow legged trousers and a stylish close-fit tunic approached with Falling Stone’s father just behind.

The two men didn’t say anything as they crossed the clearing at the top of the hill up to where Falling Stone sat, fear and fury fighting within to guide him. He had known it was coming but he still – he couldn’t let them – not again –

“Son.”

This one word paralyzed him. Son. Not just his name, not – ‘you’, not ‘boy’ (the worst of all).  Son. As if he were as treasured as his brother, an equal to the strong and healthy and normal Solid Grasp. Falling Stone stared at him, pleading with every fiber of his being – Please, Father, don’t do this. But all he said was,

“Father.”

Ranna, ignoring them, strolled into the shed and began setting up his equipment, taking several items out of the satchel he’d brought with him. A pair of scissors, an empty jar, a dozen empty vials and – Falling Stone, compelled inside by his fathers expression, eyed them with dread – a needle and syringe, a tourniquet. Ranna, apparently content with his setup, gave a satisfied sigh and said cheerfully, “Well. Shall we begin? Did you save your nails this time?”

Falling Stone nodded, and pulled out the jar Ranna had given him years ago, filled with his nail trimmings. The sight of it disgusted him, and filled him with shame. Saving his nail trimmings a whole year long, a constant reminder of his annual night of pain – and shame. No one else in the village met in the night to sell off their body. No one else even could, because no one else was… a creature, like him. Every time he cut his nails this year was like picking at a wound, but he did it. The year previous Ranna left, one jar short of his usual. And his father was not pleased. Falling Stone didn’t leave his shed for nearly a week after that, and the twinge of fear at the inevitable pain went through him now, even as he obediently handed over the jar. Ranna took it casually, before picking up the silver shears.

Looking at his father, Ranna asked, “Only three inches? You are sure?”

Solid Stone nodded, saying, “No more.”

Ranna directed Falling Stone, who complied while Ranna snipped away the bottom inches of his long, pure white locks. He supposed he ought to be grateful that his father was stingy with his hair, as long hair was a sign of pride and masculinity in the village. Anything more than a trim, and there might be stares – though Falling Stone didn’t care. How could he have any pride in his appearance? They stared regardless. His father was the one who cared – if asked, Falling Stone would’ve rather be shaved bald, and skip what he knew was coming. But his father didn’t ask him. Falling Stone knew he would be ignored if he said anything – or worse. Falling Stone sat stiffly while Ranna trimmed and swept the hairs into the larger jar, carefully picking up a few strays from the back of his linen tunic and adding them to the pile.

Finally, an eternity slipped by in a heartbeat, and Ranna directed Falling Stone to sit on the wide wooden bench that served as his bed, leaning against the wall of the shed.

His stomach felt tight. His hands clenched, as he watched Ranna put the jar back into his case, and rinse his hands off with some water from a waterskin.

Everything seemed to move in slow motion as Falling Stone stared, fixated on the glint of the needle, it’s silvery glint tinted blue-green in the light of the moonstone. A wave of nausea hit him and he felt his mind shutting down, like the lights of the village going out one by one until only one feeble light was left, his vision going black around the edges. He leaned his head back against the wooden slats and shivered, though he could feel the sweat on his forehead. He struggled to stay conscious, and opened his eyes.

Ranna was standing above him, watching him with his head cocked, a bemused expression on his face. He could feel the gaze of his father, gauging his son’s frailty, judging him. Weak.

“Come now, it’s not that bad.”

Falling Stone didn’t reply. He didn’t think he could speak. He felt as if the air itself had weigh, and the infinite pressure of it was pressing down upon his finite body. He could hardly think. All he could do was sit and stare as Ranna took his arm and washed it off, casually taking the needle and syringe and – the darkness creeped beyond the periphery of Falling Stone’s vision, and his head thumped back on the wall, as the last light in the village winked out.

When he came to, his eyelids lifting like weights, his head heavy, Ranna was packing a small tray full of red vials. Falling Stone’s head swum. So much red. His eyes wandered, and stopped on the towering figure of his father, who was watching him, expressionless. Ranna was speaking, but Falling Stone just stared at his father, who seemed the true embodiment of stone. They stepped outside the shed, neither saying a word of farewell. Why would they? You don’t say goodbye the fox when you take his pelt, or bid the sheep good day after it’s shearing. Falling Stone felt.. drained. It was the only word that made any sense. He turned the word over in his mind, drained… yes, thats fitting…drained.

Ranna, skin so dark even with the added moonlight, was a shadow in front of the door. They shook hands. The light shone on his father, whose face turned to…something. Falling Stone’s heavy mind couldn’t identify. Was it… Hunger? Relief? Ranna was reaching into his now packed bag… The darkness creeped in again, and Falling Stone didn’t struggle against it this time. He let himself fall in the darkness, where he was not so heavy, there was no pain, no light… no anything… just darkness.

Princess Ernestine

Princess Ernestine was not a real princess. She often thought about that fact, backstage in the green room before a show, or giving an interview with an obsequious reporter. A real Princess did not have to work three shows on weekends and seven per work week. A real Princess did not dance until her feet were sore and red and sometimes bled, nor be given a stern lecture for reading too long in the garden, when she could have been rehearsing. But Princess Ernestine was possibly the most convincing not-real Princess you’d ever heard of – in public, her tiny frame was surrounded by bodyguards, fending off her oft-over-enthusiastic adoring public. She had staff who managed what she wore, and ate. Only thirteen years old and already a stage sensation, she knew – as the adults often reminded her – how very lucky she was to be so talented, to be so famous so young.

Lately, before a show, Ernestine would make a very princess-like demand – to be left alone in her tower to meditate. Her tower, of course, was a small yet decadent room full of her clothes and makeup, a stool and a vanity, and a single door between her and the chaos of backstage, her name painted in cheap gold paint on it. But it was a tower enough. In actuality, Ernestine wasn’t even sure what meditation was. But it sounded very grown-up, the adults seemed charmed by it, and she liked that she could be alone for a little bit.

Tonight, as Ernestine sat alone in her room, she went over to her trunk and rummaged around. From the bottom, she took out a small wood case, where a porcelain music box sat protected with cotton fluff wool scraps. Her father had given her the music box as a ninth birthday present, just four years ago but to a thirteen year old, it was like another life. It might as well be, as far as her father was from her now. She ran her fingers along the delicate porcelain lid, gently wound the key at the back, and opened it. Within, a pale pink background faded behind a gorgeous, fragile figurine of a ballerina, en pointe and perfect. The tune that poured forth reminded Ernestine of the sound of the rain on the roof when she was younger, the way it smelled when her bedroom window was opened after the rain, fresh and pure. She began to hum and on a whim, mimicked to posture of the ballerina, en pointe – perfect, perfect as a princess. The music box played and song seemed to grow sorrowful, and Ernestine felt tears running down her face. Just like the ballerina in its box, when the music played, she danced. She danced and danced, a slave to the music as surely as if she were shackled to it. And like the Ballerina, the Princess was nothing more than a beautiful thing to dance, and then be shut away in the dark until the music played again.

Her toes aching, she collapsed, the music box tinkling as it slipped from her hand and hit the ground with a loud crack. Off-key, the music played on as she sobbed over the shattered pieces of the broken ballerina.

The Dream

Sophie lay in her bed and, with almost guilty pleasure, enjoyed the feeling of the cool bed sheets against her bare calves for one last moment before she her closed her eyes.

When she opened them, it was morning.

She nearly fell out of the bed trying to get up, before she remembered. Impatiently, she used her arms to shift herself to the trunk at the end of her bed, where she got out a change of clothes. It was easier to get dressed on the bed than in her chair. She chose a skirt today – again. Pants itched against the stumps where her legs used to be, and she wasn’t yet confident enough to bare them to public view in shorts. Skirts were a decent compromise. She was just securing herself into her chair when her father came in.

“Morning, Soph. I see you got the day started without me.” The rings around his eyes looked darker today.

“Dad, I told you! I’m not a baby. I can get dressed on my own just fine now.”

His eyes searched her face intently, as if checking for the injuries that had faded months ago. She avoided his gaze and focused instead on fixing her hair in the mirror by the bed instead.

Grabbing the handles of her chair, he apologized, “Sorry, honey. But you’re always going to be my baby, you know that, right?”

She turned her head and smiled up at him. “Alright, Daddy. I love you.”

Sophie found herself saying that a lot, lately. It wasn’t for her benefit so much as his. Her father had been just as damaged in the accident as she had – only as Sophie healed and got better, he seemed to get worse.

“Is Mom making breakfast?”

“You bet. Pancakes today, she even cut up some strawberries from your Grams’ garden.”

“Mmmm.” She smiled at him reassuringly as he hoisted her out of her chair to carry her down the stairs. He carried her close to his chest and joked, “And you say you’re not a baby!” Sophie rolled her eyes and scoffed, but she was smiling.

She had been fit for prostheses’ last month, but they weren’t yet finished and the doctor told them it would be some time before stairs would be navigable to her. In the meantime, her father performed this twice daily ritual for her. He never missed it, though Sophie’s mom was strong enough for the task. Sophie had lost a lot of weight after the accident, after all. She liked to joke about her weight loss as coming “all from the lower legs,” but it was more than just that. Her appetite just wasn’t what it used to be.

Sophie’s mother was in the kitchen, and table looked beautiful. Her mother gave her a kiss on the forehead as she rolled to the table. Her younger brother, Ryan, was already halfway through a plate of pancakes.

“This looks amazing!” Sophie said as she enthusiastically poured syrup over her plate.

“It looks great,” her father agreed, carefully cutting his pancake into small squares. Sophie watched him eat a few bites and shuffle the rest around the plate. She wasn’t the only one who had lost weight this year. Ryan, however, was so focused on his plate that the rest of them might as well not be there at all.It was good to see him looking so healthy, although she hated how they rarely talked about anything.

“Aren’t you going to eat more?” her mother asked, eyes focused on her husband. Sophie’s father said nothing and the silence weighed down on everyone at the table. Sophie swallowed a bite of pancake and felt it weigh heavily in her stomach.

Finally he said, “I think I’ll just save the rest for later.” He picked up his plate and put it in the fridge, and left the kitchen. The sound of his footsteps headed upstairs, probably to his office, echoed softly in Sophie’s ears. Ryan abruptly stood and cleared his place at the table, vanishing into the kitchen with his empty plate.

Her mother looked on the verge of tears, although whether from frustration or worry Sophie couldn’t say. Sophie wished she knew what to say to make that look go away, to make her father come back down and eat.

“Are you ready for registration next week?” her mother asked abruptly, turning to Sophie.

“I think so. There are a few classes I still need to make up my mind about.” With some effort, Sophie managed to salvage the rest of the breakfast conversation with chatter about her upcoming enrollment at the community college. They had had the same conversation twice this week already, but Sophie continued on anyways, her mother nodding along as she methodically ate her pancakes.



That evening, Sophie let her father tuck her into bed again. Being waited on hand and foot made her feel both spoiled and helpless – but she couldn’t bear to turn him away.

“Dad?” she asked quietly.

“Mmm?”

She examined him closely as he went around her room, straightening up the already straight items on her dresser that she hadn’t touched in months – she couldn’t reach that high anymore.

It’s Dad, she told herself. She gently pinched the sensitive skin on her upper arm under the covers. The bright tingle of pain reassured her – This is real. He’s real, Mom’s real. They’re alive even if they’re not perfect, they’re alive

“Everything okay, honey?” He was looking at her now.

“Yeah. I love you, that’s all.” I wish he didn’t look so sad when I say that.

“I love you, too. Sleep tight.”

“I will.” She closed her eyes.

***


When she opened them, it was morning.

Bright sunshine flooded her room. In one fluid motion, she swung her legs out from under the covers and onto the floor. The carpet was cool and soft on her toes, and for one moment her mind was empty save for the enjoyment of the sensation, before she remembered.

She dressed quickly in jean shorts and a t-shirt, and ran downstairs. Fifteen minutes later when her brother came down, she had a plate of hashbrowns and a few fried eggs ready.

“Again?” Ryan asked, shoving his books into his bag and pulling on a wrinkly hoodie.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t have time to go to the store yesterday. I’ll go tonight after work, though.”

“It’s fine.” He took one of the eggs and ignored the hashbrowns entirely. He’s too skinny. She bit the inside of her cheek. Is it really Ryan, though? She held her teeth down harder and harder on the tender flesh of her cheek, until pain blossomed into a tinge of iron. Tastes real.

“You want pancakes tomorrow?” she asked hopefully. He shrugged.

Nonchalantly, she asked, “So, are you going to ask Laura out or what?” He blushed, and she grinned at him.

“Come on, you think I haven’t noticed how much you two hang out after school? “

The corner of his mouth turned up as he said, “Yeah, I guess so.”

“You guess, huh? Well, I like her too.” Without thinking, Sophie added carelessly, “She reminds me of Mom a little.”

As soon as it was out of her mouth, her heart dropped. The silence hung in the air, and Ryan looked at his shoes. She bit the inside of her cheek.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Looking up, he added, “I miss her, y’know. Both of them. Laura gets it.”

Sophie felt her face burning, as if he were accusing her with unspoken words. But I don’t get it, do I? How can I? I just saw them. I see them every time I close my eyes.

But Ryan just picked up his bag, and gave her a hug before heading out. It caught her by surprise – he’d never been very touchy-feely before the accident.

“Ryan!” She called out as he stepped out the front door.

“Yeah, sis?” He looked back at her, the familiar dark rings under his eyes. Just like Dad...

“I love you.”He smiled, just a little, but enough. Before the accident, Ryan would’ve made some snarky comment and ran off to his friends at the bus stop, but Ryan had changed. So had she.

“I know, Soph. Love you too.”

***


One Year Ago

The warm rays of late afternoon sun shone through the leaves of the old oak in Sophie’s front yard as they pulled up into the driveway. Ryan jumped out of the car, and ran inside, eager to be out of the car. They’d just been on a three-hour long drive from Gram’s, and her parents went to the trunk to unload their bags. Sophie stepped out of the car and stretched a little, enjoying the light breeze as she turned to help.

As she took that small step towards her parents – such a small step- a black pick-up truck veered into her line of sight. In a sudden moment that seemed to take a long time in her memory, the reflective windshield loomed and expanded in front of her.The pick-up went over the curb and directly towards her parents.


Sophie stood,

and stared,

and split in two.

She froze.

She watched the truck smash into the open trunk of their family sedan, with her parents between. She saw their bodies disappear into shards of metal and a red mist. And then darkness.


She dove.

She slammed her entire body against her parents, felt as they fell forward two steps – such small steps- and Sophie flooded with relief.Then came an instant of shattering, blinding pain. And then darkness.

***


As Sophie lay in bed that night, she rubbed her legs together. She’d gone on a run today – something she did a lot, now. She lay there and concentrated on the sensation of her lower legs – the feel of the sheets, the pleasurable pain of sore muscles, the warmth of her calves, each snugly fitting into the other.

This might be real.

She remembered her parents, and closed her eyes.

Or not.

When she opened them, it was morning.

Leoa

Pekne lay still, listening to the raised voices coming through the wall of her small sleeping chamber, adjacent to her master’s quarters.

A woman was sobbing, explaining something unintelligible. Her master’s voice cut through the noise, rough yet tender.

Querida, do not worry. He can’t get you here, shhh, querida, querida, shh, I got you, shh.”

The sobbing seemed to lessen. Curiosity tingled in Pekne’s toes. She longed to go investigate. Who was out there? She had only ever heard her master call his cats that strange word, querida, and he loved no one like he loved his cats, not even Pekne.

The female voice spoke, clearly now. Pekne stiffened, as she thought she recognized the voice. But that couldn’t be…

“If only you could be with me always – but you cannot, I must return to the public eye unaccompanied, for the sake of you and everyone in The Company, you know that. ”

“Avoid him, then! Trust Ilsa, she can tell you where he will be in advance, and you can make sure to not be there.”

“Ah, true my darling, but there is no avoiding his Grand Solstice fete, we are already contracted for at least ten separate performances, it will provide for the entire Company for months. I cannot send my people to his estate and not show my face, it would ruin the Company’s reputation. I could not do that to my players… they deserve better than this cowardice.”

Querida, you are no coward, hush. You are magnificent, minha leoa. Look at you…”

Pekne blushed to hear such affectionate talk out of her gruff, unyielding instructor. Who knew he had such feelings, let alone for Madame – it must be her, the way she talks… Pekne could scarcely believe it.

Imagining the wealthy and imposing Madame Valeres in the arms of the lion tamer was such an impossible thing. Madame was elegant, graceful, and aloof. Pekne’s master was called Divoch – meaning savage- because of his thick accent, dark skin, and strange ways with beasts. The thought of them together was like imagining the union of sun and moon.


***


Pekne’s toes were tingling again, now with the anticipation for her first performance in front of real nobles, not just their silly children. She took a deep breath and formed peace within her breast, as her master had taught her, to keep the animals calm. Her little monkey and parrot each rode one of her shoulders when she stepped out to meet theMaster of Beasts.

In the arena she was transformed from timid Pekne into the Dzunglv’ca – the wild girl, the jungle girl – and she undulated in the savage dance that Ilsa, the Company’s best dancer, had spent countless hours training her for. She leapt and twisted, tumbled and both led andmimicked the beasts all around them. Divoch controlled the lionesses with fierce dignity, undaunted and magnificent, the unquestioned leader of this unnatural pride.

It was the finest performance of the night.

Pekne took her bow to a thunderous applause, feeling the heat of the dance and the nervous excitement of the animals at the roar of noise coming from the crowd. She could see Madame in the front row of the arena, seated next to the host, the languid Lord Raknar. Her posture was stiff, but her face beamed with pleasure. Pekne never felt so proud to be a performer in Madame’s legendary Company.

Meanwhile, Divoch wasted no time leading his mighty lionesses away to their temporary enclosure outside. Pekne gave light touches and made soothing sounds to her own creatures, once more upon her shoulders, and turned to follow.

But before he had led them more than a few paces, Lord Raknar raised his voice, and the crowd hastened to dampen their enthusiasm and listen.

“Master of Beasts! ”

Divoch halted, and laid a finger on the forehead of the lionesses on his either side, halting them in turn. He bowed stiffly. “Your lordship?”

Though his mouth seemed to smile, Pekne wondered how the young Lord’s eyes could look still so menacing. He is like the viper

“You have so done well, I wish to see more!” he exclaimed with dramatic hand gestures.

The audience erupted in agreement at this sentiment.

“Very well, my lord…” Divoch seemed to be searching for more to say. Pekne wondered at his compliancy. The lionesses were haughty, wild beasts, and did not tolerate extra work well, under ideal conditions. Divoch never tolerated such pretensions from other nobles. Pekne glanced back at Madame, and saw her grow pale and thin-lipped.

“Yes, it is well.” Lord gave a toothy smile. “But let’s switch things up, shall we? Let you and the Dzunglv’ca trade places!” Pekne felt her mouth drop open, and she tried to close it. Me perform his part? Master be the Jungle Girl? The thought was absurd, and stupid. It was dusk and the tips of tails were flicking in expectation of their usual prepared meal, not another performance.

The crowd was unnaturally still and Madame looked ghostly in the fading daylight. “Perhaps another time, my lord, even I weary of these beasts…” She cleared her throat, and spoke softly. “Surely we could find entertainment more… suitable for the hour?”

Divoch suddenly straightened and interrupted “No!” He lowered his voice a fraction, and added, “Of course we will perform as our lord wishes, Madame, it is no question.” And he led the lionesses back towards Pekne. She stared at him in disbelief.

He arrived in front of Pekne and held out his hand in command for the monkey to crawl to his own shoulder. The parrot flapped over of it’s own accord.

“But Master… they – the lionesses- they.. I am not -”

He shushed her fearful whispered doubts.

“We’ve no choice, Pekne. Understand? I will be directing as usual, only as Dzunglv’ca – I may look a fool, but I will not endanger you. Remember, my leoas do not respect fear.” He glanced at the platform where Madame sat beside Lord Raknar, expectant. “Be brave, filha.

She nodded, and he handed her the whip that was his only prop, and took her feathered cape and crown. She swallowed her anxiety and moved center stage, with two lionesses on either side. Her master began the dance again. He did not dance as graceful as her, of course, but he knew the motions. He wasin a strange, wild way, just as powerful as the Dzunglv’ca as he was as the Master. If the Lord had been trying to make a fool of him, he had grossly underestimated Divoch’s versatility.

Pekne tried her best to perform her master’s own moves, the powerful strides and postures, but it was difficult to concentrate with the lord looming just above of her. She felt foolish playing the part of a grown man, at first. But after a few moments, she got caught up in the music, and the heat again, and she could almost believe that she was truly the Master of Beasts, and that the whip she cracked in the air was a conduit of her power.

However she felt, Pekne knew she was only feigning direction to the lionesses – Divoch was in control. They looked only at him for guidance, it was a total farce to believe anyone but he could command them. Their golden eyes glowed in the dimming light, their fur shimmering almost red in the sunset, but Pekne never feared them, for she trusted in Divoch completely.

When she took her second bow that night, she was relieved to see the Lord looked pleased, although Madame seemed paler than ever. He clapped voraciously, saying “Bravo!” with a toothy smile. Pekne breathed deep in relief, and looked to Divoch, waiting for him to lead the lionesses around her out of the arena.

Just as he turned to do so, an immensely loud, single gunshot rang out. In a breath of shock, panic set upon the crowd as they scrambled to determine where the threat originated.Unperturbed, Lord Raknar did not turn to look.

Instead, he grabbed Madame’s hand, holding her in place, forcing her to watch the scene on the arena floor unfold. “You did this, ” he hissed in her ear. “Never forget that.”

Pekne did not see the scramble of the crowd. In fact, she had barely registered the shot when the lionesses reacted to the crowd’s panic. She did not see Divoch’s expression of horror when she fell, or Madame’s tears. From her place on the grassy arena floor, all she could see was golden fur shimmering like copper in the dying light.

Revelation of a Servant of Huehueteotl

The mighty gods who sacrificed their divine flesh and blood to bring light and life to our people require their debt repaid. Within each beating heart there lies a fragment, the precious tona-tiuh, made of the Sun’s heat. The Tenochca people must return enough tona-tiuh, or the life-giving Sun will cease to appear in our skies and the world will come to a terrible end.

A devoted servant of the Lord of Sacred Fire, Huehueteotl, I have held these tenets dear for long years. I have released to the heavens many sacred tona-tiuh from within the divine chosen, the ixiptla. I have rejoiced with each tender stoke of sanctified obsidian blade, I have celebrated with each lick of consecrated red-orange flame. Each passing year that I sate the ravening hunger of Huehueteotl with the flesh and blood of my people, I fill with pride as a savior of beloved Tenochitlan.

When my youngest niece was offered up to Tlaloc, the mighty lord of the waters and robust health, I was full of pride that my sister’s family was considered so noble. I sang and danced with the others at the shrine where she arrived, bedecked in feathers and flowers on her litter. Crystalline tears winked from her round cheeks and I wept with joy at their sight, recognizing a sure sign of abundant rain to come, of which we were in dire need. There was no remorse in me when the priests of Tlaloc set her beating heart aflame in the brazier at the altar. I felt only inspiration at her gift of rain, and honored in her purpose to become teo-micqui, the Gods’ Dead.

But no rains have come, although many children gave their tears and hearts to Tlaloc. A fire was set raging within the sacred city, razing many homes to the ground and taking many lives. And yet, all the rituals of appeasement had been performed, with punctual perfection. And yet the gods deems us unworthy of relief from drought and use our homes as kindling.

And so remorse has come, and with a vengeance for being so delayed. A crack has appeared in the foundation of my faith, a fissure that is ever growing and deepening. The fierce currents of doubt and uncertainty have ripped me from my station as unfaltering worshipper, and plunged me into the depths of heresy.

Visions and Incense

Itza worked carefully but quickly, wiping dust off the ornate figurines with a damp cloth. Women weren’t supposed to be in here, but Tlan hadn’t shown up for his duties and there was no one else to do it. The consequences he might suffer if it were left undone – they didn’t bear thinking about.

Itza had lived at the Temple of the Sun since she was just ten years old, and Tlan strongly reminded her of her younger brother. When her family was split up by the Servants of Earth, she only had a moment to say goodbye before she was placed in a cart and taken to the Temple to become one of the Dedicated. She knew it was wrong, but when she looked at Tlan her heart filled with affection that she knew rightfully belonged to her brother. But her chances of ever seeing him or her parents again were slim – the Dedicated rarely left the Temple, and only the holy men were allowed to associate with visitors.

She swiftly finished the dusting down and was just headed toward the door when she heard voices outside. She silently cursed. She shouldn’t have waited so long for Tlan to show up, before entering the sacred chamber to clean it herself. She looked around frantically for a place to hide. There was a decorative screen behind the altar, and she ducked behind it.

She had just enough time to arrange herself in a neat crouch, making her invisible from almost every angle in the room. As the doors opened, the heavy perfumes from the ceremonial incense drifted in. Lows voices murmured prayers of gratitude for permission to enter the shrine. Itza felt a burning guilt in her center. She was not supposed to be in here. Suddenly, what they might’ve done to Tlan for neglect seemed to pale compared to what they might do to her for intruding.

She listened to the soft invocations and the rustle of robes as the Sacred Servants lit more incense. Itza’s thighs began to burn as the minutes ticked by. Above her, motes of dust flickered in the rays of the late afternoon sun coming through the skylight. She tried to focus on their whirling paths, but soon she was about to give in and attempt to adjust to a kneeling position. Then a sudden piercing cry of pain and fright filled the room.

Itza froze, halfway between a crouch and a kneel. There was some kind of commotion on the other side of the screen. The outside door hadn’t opened, but one of the priests was screaming in agony. What was happening? Itza’s burning legs moved of their own accord, taking advantage of the noise to collapse down into a kneeling position. She barely noticed. Her heart raced as she heard the other two Sacred Servants grunting and shuffling, as if trying to contain a wild animal. The sounds of the struggle more than masked whatever noise she might’ve made adjusting her position.

Suddenly it was quiet except for the heavy breathing of the men on the other side of the partition. Itza stared at the delicate patterns in red and gold, curiosity and terror fighting for dominance of her mind. She tried to keep her own breathing as soft and silent as possible. She considered peeking out from behind the screen. She reminded herself that the punishment, were she to be found, would be severe. Still, she began to lean forward slowly towards the edge of the screen –

Then a voice began talking, and she froze again. He did not speak in Sacred Tongue of prayers. Itza was shocked to hear one of the devout Servants profane the shrine with common language.

“Brothers…” he croaked, his voice raw. Itza thought he must’ve been the one who screamed a moment before.

“I have had a vision.” His voice shook with emotion, and she heard soothing noises made by one of his fellows.

“Shh, shh.” His whisper was rushed and fearful. Itza did not know if he feared to voice words in the impious common tongue here in a sacred space, or if it was the state of his brother disturbed him.

“Brothers,” the man said again, stronger this time.

“I witnessed a terrible thing! There was fire, fire everywhere..” He made a strange gulping sound, almost as if he were choking.

“Our city, our beautiful city was in ruins! Brothers!” His voice rose to fevered pitch.

“Brothers! We are doomed! I have seen our fate, and during his Festival, Juetzal will punish us for unknowable sins and his jubilant crowds will burn and burn, his hunger will not be sated until we are all destroyed!”

At this revelation, the man began to weep.

“Brothers, I have seen our families…”

There were no more sounds of soothing. Instead, a tremulous voice whispered, “What of our families, Katal?”

Itza could barely understand the priest Katal through his sobbing.

“Dead! Everyone burnt and screaming, I was there and I smelled their burning bodies, Brothers, I could smell them burning!” After this last statement, his speech degenerated into unintelligible sobs and choked whispers. Itza nearly forgot her current predicament, she was so focused on making sense of his sobs. She only made out one last word word, a haggard whisper, “Juetzal”, and then she could hear the other men shifting and moving, and in a moment the door slammed shut.

Itza sat there, behind the screen in the sacred shrine, in silence. Her mind whirled and her chest felt heavy. She prayed that her intrusion into the sanctuary had not been the cause of the terrible vision. Gradually the skylight above her darkened and the stars emerged. The silence grew deep, and Itza watched them shimmer and thought of her family, and of bodies burning in the streets.

View From Below

On the morning of my twenty second day straight of lying down at a six degree angle, i began to doubt my decision. It wasn’t so much the physical effects – the odd sense of disorientation passed after the first week, the dizziness and the lightheadness returned only rarely now. But psychologically it was hard to not get up, to just lie there like a fish, staring up at the ceiling. Of course I still had my scheduled exercises, but thirty minutes of lying-down at six degree resistance training every other day wasn’t exactly enough to keep me from getting bored. I honestly thought coming into this that having three months of lying down would be kind of restful, that I could get so far in Skyrim, read a couple good books and maybe write some poetry, compose a goddamn symphony – something.

You don’t realize how long the day is when you’re busy. When your occupation is lying down at a six-degree angle and giving occasional biometric data, the day looks different. For one, everyone is always hovering above you, and often upside down. I had a nightmare last night that my wife, who comes and visits nearly every day, was walking around with her face on upside down and I couldn’t get her to look at me properly. She just kept on staring with her eyes flipped over, a horrible grimace that certainly was supposed to be a smile… it was disgusting. I didn’t tell her about it, no reason to hurt her feelings over a dream. But still, I had to shake the disquiet off during our lunch together today.

The problem is, all the things I thought I didn’t need to be upright to do – turns out everything is awkward and difficult when lying down at a six degree angle. Even lunch and a conversation with your wife can be a challenge. No soup, that’s for sure. All liquids from a straw, only space-proof freeze-dried finger food to keep the variables to a minimum. Nothing slippery like pudding, and you can forget about trying to cut up a steak from this angle. Cookies are okay. Sandwiches too.

Handwriting turned out to be nearly impossible – I’d have to hold my arm up in front of me for far too long, the blood draining down out of it within ten or fifteen minutes. But I could write on my lap without looking, turns out, and they gave me a an adjustable screen that with some assistance from my wife hooked up well to my laptop, and so I can sit here and type out my thoughts, such as they are in this blood-bag that’s become my brain. There will be a two week recovery period after my 70th day lying down at a six degree angle. I’m beginning to wonder if it will be enough.

I just hope the boredom doesn’t kill me first.

Molly

Molly was looking for ways to be powerful. She was tired of feeling out of control. Her father, the scientists, the serious government men who never smiled – they ran her life in meticulous detail, from dawn ’til dusk and from dusk ’til dawn again, every movement planned, approved, supervised, recorded, and evaluated. Her room was supposed to be her sanctuary, but she’d known for years that they watched her there too. It didn’t bother her. The idea of privacy, of a right to freedom of movement, were only vague notions in her mind as powers other people had that she did not. She might as well be bothered that she couldn’t fly, or read minds. Dr. Harrelson told her she was a very special little girl, that she was a national resource, no, a national treasure, and that it was very important that she stay safe, to stay where she could be watched over. Molly believed her, of course – Dr. Harrelson was the closest thing she had to a mother. Her own had died of an illness when she was very young.

But now that she was getting older, she noticed things were changing. The few scientists at the facility where she lived served as her teachers and mentors, and one she even considered her friend – they were all behaving differently. It was hard to pin down at first. Dr. Ramachandran, who let Molly call him Mohinder, was always happy to talk with her about anything, usually the things she read about in the library, like Japan or Paris or circuses or mountains or what fish were like, what did the ocean look like? He was her best friend because he always answered her questions, no matter how many she asked, and most importantly he smiled more than the other scientists, who were all so fidgety and serious. Mohinder said they just weren’t used to little girls, but he had two of his own so he understood better. Molly desperately wished to meet them. He always said that they didn’t have clearance to come on campus, but maybe someday.

However, she did successfully convince him to read to her from her favorite series of novels. They were all about Miss Agnes Pinkerton, a girl in Victorian England who solved mysteries at her boarding school with her best friends Charlotte and Rachel. Molly could read just fine on her own, much better than most eleven year-olds, as books were the only place she found the company of other children. But she liked Mohinder to read out loud to her, it felt like they shared a secret together. Miss Agnes and her friends were always sharing secrets with each other. Miss Agnes’s freedom to go and do as she pleased was something of fascination to her, but Charlotte and Rachel were Molly’s favorite part of Agnes’s life at school, and sometimes she imagined Mohinder’s little girls might come visit and the three of them together could have adventures just like the three girls at the Madam Winthrop’s Academy for Young Ladies.

One day she asked Mohinder if he might solve a mystery with her sometime, and he smiled and said that she herself was already a great mystery, if she might like to understand herself better he’d be happy to help. She took this to mean it was time to get back on task, and helpfully went into the Safe Room for their next game. It was called the Safe Room for everyone else – she was always safe, in any room on campus, Dr. Harrelson often reminded her.

After receiving Mohinder’s instructions over the intercom, Molly melted the block of plutonium as requested, and in a burst of creativity, wiggled her fingers over it a little until it bubbled and hardened into the shape of a face. She wanted it to look like Miss Agnes – she pictured the face illustrated on the covers, the round cheeks and little snub nose that Agnes was so insecure about, and was just putting the finishing touches on Miss Agnes’s proper Victorian curls forming in the glowing lump of metal when Mohinder’s voice echoed in the mostly empty Safe Room, crackling,

“Molly? Please stop now, it’s too hot.”

“Okay! Just a sec!”

“Molly, the system can’t handle this much heat for so long.”

Just the eyebrows now, like little feathers…

“Molly!”

She stopped. Mohinder never raised his voice, and even through the intercom she could hear he was upset.

Agnes’s face began to cool, her glowing features fading back into a dull metallic color. Molly frowned. It wasn’t bad, but it would have looked better if she’d been able to work on the eyebrows just a second longer.

“Thank you Molly, please come out now and wait for me in the lobby.”

The lobby is where she entered the long corridor that led to the Safe Room, whereas the scientists would go into the monitoring chamber to the other side, donning big suits lined with lead. Mohinder said they were very hot and heavy, which was why it always took so long to receive her instructions in the Safe Room. She didn’t need any special suit, but had to wait patiently before she was allowed to play. The games weren’t usually all that interesting or exciting, nothing like the games Agnes played with Charlotte and Rachel. Once they got up in the middle of night to talk to the spirit of the old groundskeeper through a Ouija board, and then there was the Truth or Dare game that always hurt someone’s feelings but then would bring them closer together by the end – if she ever got to meet Mohinder’s daughters, she would like to play these games with them.

No, the games in the Safe Room were mostly just following some instructions. But she liked to be free to use her “ability”, since she wasn’t allowed to melt things, make them glow or shake or break down into little bits of dust in any other room in the facility. Dr. Harrelson, Mohinder and just about everything from the sign in her bedroom to her father’s perpetually worried eyebrows were constantly reminding her of this. She knew it as well as she knew how to breathe. You Do Not Use Your Ability Outside the Safe Room. It was a fact of life.

But she did enjoy her ability in the Safe Room, it felt good, like she’d been holding her breath until she let it all out of a burst of energy. She often felt a little giddy afterwards, and wanted to run around and shout. She had a regular playroom for this and took advantage of it, but it was never quite as satisfying as games in the Safe Room. Usually games lasted several hours, but not today. It had barely been fifteen minutes, and she was disappointed that she wouldn’t get to play anymore.

The Nightmare

I climbed down the steps, into the cool dusk of the cellar. The smell of mold and mildew filled my nose, just like it did in the rest of this dusty old cabin, but it was stronger down here, more potent. Pungent, almost fertile with the growth of rot somewhere. The room was dimly lit only from the cellar door above, and empty. No crates, no furnishings to speak of. Just walls paneled with old wooden boards that gave under the slightest pressure, spongy underneath my fingertips. I wrinkled my nose in disgust – and I wasn’t even to the bottom yet.

My stomach tied itself in knots as I stood in front of what appeared to be the way down into the sub-cellar. The only feature in the room, it was very small for a trap door – I imagined half the people I knew probably wouldn’t fit through it at all. And the second half would still find it a tight squeeze. There was no visible handle or hand-hold, just a plain square of wood set into a recess, the same musty old wood of the walls. I knelt down slowly, and reluctantly reached out to pry the wooden panel out. My fingernails dug into the crack between the panel and it’s frame with ease – this wood was as rotten as the rest. I glanced uncomfortably at the wooden slats beneath my feet – though they appeared to be holding my weight with no trouble, I didn’t want to waste any time staying in one spot for too long to test that theory.

The ‘door’ – such as it was – came out of the frame easily, and I set it down on the floor next to me, and idly peeled a small chunk of spongy wood off the edge, damp with rot. I dropped the piece of soft wood through the doorway – or rather, the hole – and strained my ears. Nothing. The wood was very soft, unlikely to make much noise. Still the silence was unsettling.

Couching above, I peered into the sub-cellar. The darkness below was deep, almost tangible. For a moment, I thought it looked soft, like velvet or the dust of a moth-wing. But the knot in my stomach quickly moved me past such esoteric musings, not giving me enough time even for my eyes to adjust to the obscurity beneath before making ready to enter it. Nervousness about the stability of the floor and anxiety to be done with my task spurred me along, but part of me knew that the longer I stood here, the greater my sense of dread would grow until I would be wholly unable to perform the task at all.

I lowered myself into the hole in the floor feet first, making a futile attempt to keep the nasty old wood frame from dirtying my pants as I lowered myself into the dark recess. In a moment, I was dangling there in that sheer dark, the cold prickling my skin even as the stench grew worse. I held onto the frame by my hands and didn’t allow myself the luxury of further thought, no opportunity for my fear to grow, and let myself drop into the dark.

The moment I felt the cold hard stone, only few feet down, just as it was supposed to be, beneath my hands, I came to a painful realization. With a sudden wrenching twist inside, I groaned. I felt the depth of what an unbelievable fool I was, blind to the scheme behind my instructions.

There’s no way out.

Into the Dark

It was dark.

That’s good, I thought, still groggy with sleep. Dark is good. Dark is safe, and sweet.

My next thought was, of course, that I was hungry.

That’s usually my next thought, nowadays. In fact, I’d say more often it’s my first thought. But this day, this night -whatever it was- was the first real hunger I’d experienced since leaving orbit. I pressed the release button inside of my sleeping pod. I quietly slid down, and floated out feet first, barely glancing at my sleeping crew-mates. Only their feet were visible from their own pods, a pair of light blue socks that matched my own standard issue pair showing within each sleeping capsule. One set of small, feminine feet to my left, a larger, more masculine pair to my right, and an almost grotesquely large pair of male feet directly beneath me – in zero G, it didn’t really matter what direction you slept in. Up and down didn’t have a whole lot of meaning out here.

I made my way to the mess, not bothering to shut the hatches in between units. God, I was hungry. How long had it been since I’d eaten? Eight hours, maybe? Certainly long enough to work up an appetite. I hadn’t eaten before I went to sleep, as I hadn’t been feeling well. But I was certainly hungry now.

What I wouldn’t give for a steak, a big fatty one, medium, just the way I liked it – no, not medium, bloody. Just thrown on the pan long barely enough to warm it, not even seared, and then I’d sink my teeth into it, feel the meat melt into blood between my teeth, down my throat…I felt myself salivating at the thought, and my stomach clenched with anticipation.

Jesus, I must be hungrier than I thought.

I hastily prepared one of the freeze-dried meatloaf meals, shoving it into the microwave with impatience. It was hardly as good as a steak, but I was starving, and somehow I knew a simple midnight snack wouldn’t cut it. A dim part in the back of my mind wondered what time it even was, but I couldn’t be bothered to check, and sat my three minute vigil outside the microwave door, waiting in agony. It was the longest three minutes of my life up until that point, though now I can safely say I’ve experienced much longer.

After two minutes and thirty two seconds of tension, I couldn’t wait any longer. All I could think about was that damn bloody, juicy steak as I burnt my fingers pulling the thin cover off the meatloaf, not bothering with utensils, and pulled a chuck of unappetizing reheated meat out of the packaging and shoved it into my mouth. The center was frozen despite how the outside scorched my tongue, and I gagged.

Ugh, it’s gone bad! It wasn’t just badly cooked, it tasted like dust, the cloying taste of dirt sticking to the roof of my mouth. I was incredulous. These things are supposed to be good for years, we hadn’t even been out for two days and it’s already bad? I was furious, fuming, my hunger feeding my indignation. I spat the dirt-clod of cardboard meat out in a spray of rage.

Just as I considered what a mess I’d made for myself to clean up, a familiar voice sounded in my ears.

“Donna?” Jared was just outside, looking through the open unit hatch.

“What the hell are y-”

Before he could finish his sentence, before he could finish his thought – hell, before I even finished a thought of my own – I lunged. I didn’t even see him, not really. His soft brown eyes, the laugh lines around his mouth, his broad shoulders and the five o’clock shadow he never seemed to be without, and of course those ridiculously large feet – all this was all beyond my awareness. I can’t even remember what his face looked like at that moment. Perhaps that is a blessing.

The only thing I was aware of was the sweet, sticky flood rushing between my teeth, down my throat, down his throat too – assuaging a pain I hadn’t even known I’d felt until Jared soothed it, nourished it, as we floated there, entangled.

As the flood slowed to a sludge, I suddenly felt very heavy. The flecks of starlight outside the small porthole window in the mess seemed so horribly bright, piercing through the cloud of red mist on the thick glass. I closed my eyes and tried to curl up beside him. Pinpricks of liquid kissed my bare cheeks and hands with their fading heat, and I wrapped my arms around him best I could. I clutched at his hand, the left one that wore a gold ring that was mate to my own.

“Oh, Jer…” I murmured, as his ragged gasps lulled me to sleep.

Back into sweet, safe sleep once more. Back into the dark.