Ashes: Lumină

Photo by Jill Burrow on Pexels.com

Mel, Riki and Ariel were sitting down at the kitchen table, the ouija board sitting in its case in the center of the table. Mel had thought to put it in the closet or even in the bedroom, just to get it away from them for a reprieve from the energy emanating from it. Mel was new, brand new, to anything occult, but she had always believed there were unseen forces at work in the world. This was the first time she had experienced proof positive however, and she could not deny that the thing felt inexplicably, well, dark. She wondered how in the world she hadn’t noticed the feeling to begin with in the shop, but figured that would be a problem for another day. Ariel had stopped her mid motion toward the closet and said, “No, Mel. Hiding it away won’t help. It feeds off of the dark, so it will only fester in it, growing worse if hidden in the shadows. Best to keep it in the light, literally and also where we can see it. I know it’s uncomfortable, but it must be watched. The întuneric has a mind of its own, and the ability to follow that mind to an extent.” She pronounced it “in-toon-air-ick” and as she said it, Mel’s heart skipped a beat and she waited for that sickening chill that had passed through her just minutes earlier. This time though, there was nothing but that uneasiness that was a byproduct of holding the thing. Ariel gestured towards the table and Mel sat it down unceremoniously, grateful to at least not be touching it any more. Really, how had she missed this?

They had taken their seats at the table around it, almost as if they were going to have an impromptu seance. Mel looked at Ariel somberly and said, “ You called it the…um ‘întuneric,’” Mel pronounced it the same way Ariel had spoken it, “ as if it is more than just a  board game. But I mean, you can buy ouija boards at any superstore in the city. I realize that this is not a mass produced model or anything, I did that on purpose because it seemed, I don’t know, wrong, to try to contact Aris on something marketed to children and teenagers who want to scare themselves at sleepovers or parties You said it has a mind and can follow it to an extent, what does that mean? And for that matter, what do you mean you dreamed it all? Are you some kind of psychic?”

Ariel met Mel’s eyes directly and spoke clearly and without hesitation, “Some would say psychic, some may call me clairvoyant, an empath, et cetera. I prefer the term gifted as my talents don’t fall solely under one category. I will explain it all, I can see the questions racing across your face, in your eyes and feel them from you both.” Ariel turned to Riki, “I can feel that you are intensely loyal and protective over Mel, and I assure you my friends and I are only here to help. That is what we do. We utilize the individual gifts we have been given to help people who stumble across or accosted by the darkness. Darkness in the broad sense, mind you. Not just then întuneric”. Ariel looked back at Mel and once again answered the unspoken question, “Oh yes, there are far more evils in the world than what has been brought upon you and yours Mel. They are not just limited to one type as most people are led to believe. It is not just ‘Good and Evil,’ there are levels to this shit as the saying goes. What we deal with are the things that every day people have often never heard of, or if they have they don’t believe it to be anything more than a scary story or something that has a ‘reasonable explanation.’”

The two best friends listened intently to their visitor as she continued to explain. Mel sat both enraptured and terrified as Ariel explained to them how she had come to Mel’s doorstep. The dreams had started three days after Ariel had passed. At first, it was just shadows and pieces of words, images coming through here and there, blurry like opening her eyes underwater. But as the days passed, they grew more detailed and more frequent. Ariel asked Aris what she needed and Aris would answer with partial sentences, then show images of Mel, their home and, strangely, Mel’s father.  Ariel explained that she could hear Aris as if over a shoddy cell phone connection, and she soon realized why. Normally, she said, her dreams or visions were crystal clear. They may be enigmatic as the dead, apparently, sometimes have a hard time communicating through their thought process after crossing the veil, but they were almost never this jumbled and choppy. It became apparent that there was something else riding the connection, trying to interfere. Ariel said she was surprised she hadn’t noticed it sooner, because once she did it was like a glaring dark spot, growing each time she looked away and then back at it. Once she figured this out, instead of focusing her energy on Aris, Ariel turned on that darkness and gave it all of her attention. She steeled herself against it and gathered all of her inner light, she said. She had envisioned it forming into a tight, phosphorescent white ball, hot and bright, and raised her hands to her chest, cupping that light, willing it to manifest in a tangible form. She never took her eyes off of the darkness, hearing faintly in the background that Aris was shouting words like “Careful!” and “Dangerous!” 

Ariel watched the darkness and though it had taken no discernable form, she felt it looking back at her, watching like a scorpion, ready to strike if she moved the wrong way. She spoke then, in the vision. “I command you to tell me your name.” She heard a series of hissing sounds emanating from the formless dark, coming out in bursts that sounded too much like laughter to be anything else. Ariel was unmoved as this was not her first time staring evil in the face, though it was the first time it had no actual face. As the thought crossed her mind, she spoke again, loud and forceful. “Show yourself, foul thing that  you are. You will not hide from me. You can not hide from the light.” With that, Ariel pushed her hands out in front of her, and watched as pale white fire flew from the space between her hands and engulfed that darkness. It screamed then, a baleful and deafening sound, full of menace and the promise of pain everlasting. Ariel stood firm, “show yourself, creature, and make your name known.” With the last word, she doubled down on the energy she was pushing at the creature, visualizing it not just surrounding it and engulfing it, but penetrating it, going through the front and out the back like a spear. The shrieking changed then, from rage to pain. The creature cried out woeful and then began to whimper wordlessly, trying to play to her compassion. For this creature Ariel had none. She flexed her power, tightening it around the entity, “Your name! Now!” Ariel watched as the darkness first began to shrink, then take form inside the light. She could feel it getting smaller, folding in on itself. At last, she saw before her a little boy, made to appear six or seven and looking at her with more hatred than anyone with a soul could ever be capable of. It began to fade then, slowly, and she tightened her light around it, squeezing. “I will not let you go without a name, creature.” It snarled at her, but then said one word, voice gravelly and guttural, “Întuneric.” With that utterance it was gone. Ariel’s power flowed back into herself, light absorbing into her hands and chest. It was only then that she turned her attention back to Aris. They had been able to speak clearly, though there were still some things even Aris couldn’t explain. Contrary to popular belief, Ariel explained, death does not grant omniscience. 

Ariel went on to explain the message Aris had for her. It was, well, dark. Someone had summoned this creature, a demon in the truest sense of the word. The summoning had taken place before Aris had gotten sick. This demon, Întuneric as it had named itself, fed on the darkest of energies. It revelled in fear, loss, pain and terror. It had no interest in taking souls, but instead thrived off draining the soul to a husk by terrorizing and toying with it. In darkness it moved, sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally, and tied itself to things of this world to use as tools to do its bidding. Each time it was allowed to manifest made the next time easier, making it very much a snowball effect once someone got that particular ball rolling. It had been summoned by a person who had offered to do just that in return for having their wish granted. What the wish was, Aris couldn’t say and neither could Ariel. What Ariel did know from her research as well as her experience was that anything the demon promised would be tainted. Though it was trite, it was also true. Making a deal with evil would never end well, and oftentimes ended in the dealing party’s death or worse, praying for the relief death would bring.

Whatever the wish, Darkness had been summoned, and when it knocked, Mel and Riki had inadvertently opened the door, allowing it to manifest. 

“But wait,” Mel said, “You mentioned it was summoned before Aris passed. We didn’t have that ouija board here then. And we didn’t have any hauntings or anything either.”

Ariel looked at Mel, compassion filling her eyes. “Mel. Aris’ illness was a haunting. It manifested to look like the virus, but what killed your wife was the darkness.”

Photo by Ave Calvar Martinez on Pexels.com

“No. Fuck that! No!! It can’t be true! They ran tests, they verified it! I held her hand while I watched that virus take her from me! No! Ariel, no, please!!” Mel began to sob, begging Ariel to take it back. Riki tried to comfort her, but she was inconsolable. Even as she shook her head, denying with every fiber of her being that it could be the truth, Mel knew. She knew with the same intuition that told her Aris had been there, was still there, and was trying to reach her. The same space of herself that recognized, too late but still undeniable, that the ouija board was anything but benign. She knew that what Ariel was saying was true. 

After the worst of the sobbing had passed, Mel excused herself to the restroom. She looked in the mirror and focused on the rise and fall of her chest, regulating her breathing the way Aris had taught her. She collected herself and went back out into the dining area where Riki and Ariel sat talking about all Ariel had shared with them so far. “Ariel, how could I have not known?” Mel asked this, expecting there wouldn’t be a real answer, but instead some pretty words, sugar coating how blind she must have been to have missed this. The damn board was like a flashing neon danger sign to her now, she should have seen it. But Ariel surprised her with an answer that was not sugar coated, but instead logical and reasonable. As reasonable as something like this could be.  

“The same way the doctors didn’t know, Mel. They thought it was the virus because it disguised itself as such. It is a crafty thing. It presented with the symptoms most likely to hide it and was able to cause her test results to be as they were. It presented itself to you as a tool to help you when it saw that Aris was getting through to you. It fed off both of you while she lived, and still does so now. Your grief, her fear for you. It gave you hope and then fed heartily when that hope was crushed by the terror of the events during and following your seance. Aris has been able to come to me in my dreams, but she grows more and more faint each night. It is draining both of you, Mel, and has now latched on to Riki..” Mel looked at Riki, drawing breath to apologize, though she couldn’t think of what apology could possibly be enough for what she had inadvertently done to her best friend. “Don’t even say it, Mel. You are my sister, blood be damned, and I would not let you go through this alone given a choice. Besides, Ariel here said she and her friends can help. It can’t be all bad news, right?” She looked at Ariel when she said this last. Ariel shook her head solemnly, “No, it isn’t all bad news, but we may as well get all the bad out first.” 

“Oh, God. There’s more?” Mel didn’t think she could take any more bad news just at that moment. 

“I told you earlier that neither Aris nor I know the wish that was made in the summoning of the Darkness. But she did know one thing. The person who summoned this darkness, she was unflinchingly certain.” Ariel was quiet for a beat and looked at Mel intently. “The summoner is your father.”

Mel felt an ice cold pit in her stomach. At the very same time her face grew hot and flushed. She didn’t have time to respond, just got up and ran for the restroom. As she vomited all the bile that was left in her, she repeated one thought over and over in her mind. There was no doubt that Ariel was telling the truth. And of one other thing Mel was certain. Her father was going to pay.

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels.com

After Mel and Riki both consented, Ariel had placed a call to her friends. They arrived not twenty minutes later and were introduced as Sam, Rita, Cassie and Jimmy. They brought with them a big black duffel bag, which the one named Sam carried in. Mel could see immediately that Sam was Ariel’s other half, just from the way they looked at one another. She was struck by a pang of sadness, and jealousy, though she would never have admitted that second out loud. It hurt her heart that Aris was gone. But it was even worse to know that though Mel had thought her suffering had ended, it had only gotten worse after she passed.   As soon as she thought it, she smelled sandalwood on the air. Sandalwood with a hint of vanilla.. “Does…does anyone else smell that?” She asked aloud. The one called Jimmy was looking at her intently. No, not at her. Just to the left of her. She turned that way, seeing nothing, then looked back to him with questioning eyes. Jimmy, frustratingly enough, looked to Ariel instead of answering. Ariel said to all of them, not just Jimmy, “Mel and Riki have experienced enough in the last two days that we will not have to convince them what they are experiencing is real. Don’t hold back guys. They need to know it all if we are going to beat this thing.” It was only then that Jimmy looked back at Mel and said, “The smell is meant for you. To hurt. The Darkness sensed something about your thoughts it wanted to feed on. To prod at. And so it chose a smell that would mean something. That would make it hurt. I saw it, well, drinking from you. From your aura.” Rage. Pure rage boiled in her blood from the tips of her toes to the top of her head. That this thing, this fucking thing, would have the audacity to smell like her. To use her love to hurt her, to make her more, what? Delicious to consume? “She looked at the group of people who had come to help her and let the rage burn out any trace of pain or grief. She let it consume her fear, feelings of betrayal, heartache, loneliness and any shadows of doubt or flagellation. She would have time for those feelings later. For now, the flames of that righteous rage swallowed everything else, and suddenly there was ice in her veins. A resolve that was unshakeable. Riki said quietly, “Um, Mel? Are you okay?” She looked at her best friend and nodded briefly. Riki didn’t look convinced, but in that moment Mel didn’t care. She looked back at Jimmy. “How do I kill it?”

Rita answered from behind Jimmy, “You don’t. Technically it cannot be killed. But what we, all of us together, can do is banish it from this plane of existence, damning it to starve eternally in the pits of the darkness that birthed it. Close enough for you?” Mel smiled, but not like she was happy. If she had to describe it, she would say it felt predatory. “Oh, yeah. Good enough.”

Ariel and her friends took turns explaining how this all was going to work. It sounded pretty simple. They were going to form what they called a circle of power. They were going to draw on a force they called The Kenning. When Riki asked what that was, Cassie had told them to think of it as their own personal spiritual power network, like a chain linked together, growing stronger with each link added, and then electrified, conducting the energies between the lot of them and feeding off of one another, growing exponentially. She said that was the simplest way to put it. Mel didn’t really care what they called it, as long as it worked. 

Ariel let them know that once they became a part of The Kenning, it may be temporary or it may leave them linked for longer, even permanently. The extent to which they would be connected was outside of anyone’s control or influence. It seemed, Ariel said, to depend on what fate had in store for each of them and if they would be drawn together again. What she could tell them was during the ritual, they would experience a sort of out of body feeling. They may get pieces of thoughts and feelings that weren’t their own, they may even see themselves from the outside looking down. It could be very jarring and would require that they steel themselves against moving out of the circle or panicking. They would be seated in a circle, around the board, though it would remain in its case. There were also chains with strange symbols on them which they would use to bind the box shut. This would all start at 11:11PM exactly. Ariel said though that part wasn’t necessary, it would definitely help. Sam had added they would take all the help they could get, that this thing was quite a nasty beast. And so, they prepared to fight, filling Riki and Mel in on any need to know and may need to know information. The raging fire inside Mel had slowed, but only slightly. She was able to be cognizant of the gravity of the situation. Ariel pulled her aside and said, “Mel, I know you want vengeance. And you have a right to it. We are going to do everything we can tonight to give it to you. Just remember to keep your balance. The rage I feel in you is mighty. But so is the love you have for Aris. And for Riki. Use that love as a life raft if the rage starts to win out. Anger can be a great tool when utilized properly. Just make sure it’s not running the show.” She didn’t wait for a response, just patted Mel on the back and walked away. Mel sat with what Ariel just said and searched inside herself. Love? Of course.  She loved Aris, that big love that even the best poets could hardly put into words. And though it was a completely different kind of love, she loved Riki deeply as well. Like family. Family. Like her father was supposed to have loved her. But instead he had damned her. And not just her, but the love of her life and, albeit vicariously, her best friend. How could he have done that? And there it was, that rage. She wrapped it around her like armor. It was an impenetrable, razor sharp forcefield between her and the circumstances she found herself in. Mel wasn’t worried about moving from the circle out of fear. She wasn’t worried about panic. No. It was The Darkness that should panic. Her rage burned hot and bright, and everyone knows, Mel thought to herself, that darkness cannot survive in the light. 

     It was two minutes until the time. Mel and Riki had practiced the chant they would all begin saying as Sam bound the board in the chains with the markings on them. Riki had asked about the markings and Ariel had said they were Angel Touched, whatever that meant. Mel was too focused on the goal to be curious. Maybe one day she would ask, but not this day. The time struck the designated minute and they all took their seats, Sam moving to the center. As he began to wrap the board, they all began to chant, “Darkness you are bound, in body and in spirit. Move no more within this realm. We banish you Întuneric.” A simple chant, but as they began Mel’s ears began to pop as if from the pressure of ascending or descending by great distance. She felt a tension growing in the room. Sam moved steadily, wrapping the board in its box, trapping it inside. 

     “Darkness you are bound, in body and in spirit. Move no more within this realm. We banish you Întuneric.”

They said it with a growing volume, more forcible at each turn. The board began to rattle in it’s box, first slightly, then loudly. It started to shake in earnest as they went on, Sam’s fingers going paler at the tips as he squeezed, muscles bulging as he wound the chain around and around. They were told not to close their eyes as Întuneric would move within that darkness in their mind’s eye and so they watched. They saw the white candles start to flicker, then go near dark, then spring back to life. Mel looked at Sam. She loved him so much…wait, no that wasn’t right. She had only just met him. She loved Aris. She looked at Ariel and the look on her face was pure focus. And love. Ah, so The Kenning had begun. She looked around at the faces of all of them, feeling bits and pieces of fear, faith, love, hope and determination. She looked at her own face then, outside and above herself and she felt that rage. 

    It was as if noticing it stoked that fire. It went from a flame to an inferno. She watched as her body became engulfed in a bright red glow, then looked around the circle to see the others glowing in their own light. Ariel was a bright white, Cassie a spring green, Sam a bright orange that was almost too bright to look at. Rita was a steady, glowing silver and Riki was pale pink. The red around her own body began to darken, she felt the rage of it all bubbling up. It wasn’t enough that the bastard had emotionally abused and manipulated her through her whole childhood. Not enough for him to make everything about himself, to never once have expressed empathy or understanding, even when her mother died. It wasn’t enough for him to refuse to accept his daughter as a lesbian or acknowledge her marriage as legitimate. No. He had ruined her life! And for what? Some wish to be granted? 

     Mel jumped as she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked down and was in her own body once more. She noticed the light around her had gone almost completely black. She turned to the hand on her shoulder and met Ariel’s gaze. “Balance.” The voice rang through her mind, out loud they were all continuing the chant. Mel took a deep breath through her nose and smelled sandalwood again. Stronger than ever. She watched as that blackness began to seep from her light into the others. The cabinets and drawers all flew open, the contents spilling out onto the floor. The windows rattled in their casings, hard enough Mel thought they’d shatter. But it was all so far away now. So blissfully far. That rage was all that mattered. It kept her safe from the pain, safe from the sorrow, safe from the guilt and the loss. Mel was outside herself again, watching as the auras around her began to darken, spreading like a fog. She began to feel tired. So tired. She could sleep. She could sleep now, wrapped in her cocoon of righteous fury. And never have to wake up. She noticed as her eyes began to flutter that there was a wisp of purple. As she watched it, it began to grow. Larger and brighter it grew. It drew her back into herself and she forced her eyes to stay wide open. She blinked and there sitting in front of her was Aris. Aris, shrouded in purple and smiling. She didn’t speak, but instead lifted a hand and placed it over Mel’s heart. 

     “I love you, Mel.” Aris spoke in her mind, and it thrummed through her to her very soul. “Aris, I’m sorry.” Saying the words out loud and looking into her love’s eyes broke that rage. It snapped like a twig and she was left with pain. So much pain. The darkness grew around them, all but Aris. She gripped Mel’s face in her hands, and though she knew it should be impossible, she felt those hands, solid and real against her skin. Aris spoke out loud this time, “This was not your fault. Do you hear me? I love you and this is not your fault!” Mel looked into those eyes, eyes she had stared into over and over, and never thought to see again in this lifetime. “Don’t let this thing win, baby. I got you. Don’t let him win.” Aris said this and a tear slid down her face. Mel felt a hot tear slide down her own cheek, mirroring it exactly. She wrapped her arms around Aris and held her tight. “I love you, Aris. You got me, I got you.” Mel said this in her mind and outloud. She reached one hand out to Riki and found her best friend’s hand waiting, gripping her own firmly. She held on to Aris and then, with the rhythm of the group, shouted at the top of her lungs, “Hear me, you bastard! Darkness you are bound, in body and in spirit. Move no more within this realm. We banish you Întuneric!”

Photo by Luis Dalvan on Pexels.com

A blinding purple light exploded in the center of the circle, and there was a clatter of chains falling to the floor. The blackness was just gone, no ebbing, not creeping away, but instantly gone as if burned away by the light. There was no other sound, the chant had stopped, and Mel could still feel Aris against her and Riki’s hand in her own. Mel wasn’t sure how long this went on, but it felt like forever. The light gradually started to fade, until all that was left glowing was Aris. Mel pulled back to look at her. “I am so glad I got to hold you one more time. Thank you Aris. You saved me.” Aris looked at her smiling, “You saved me, too, love. No more tears. Unless they are happy ones. I’ll be waiting for you on the other side.” Aris kissed Mel gently, and Mel smiled a real smile. “I’ll always miss you, but no more tears.” She wiped her cheeks and said, “After these ones.” Aris laughed and began to fade. “I’ll hold you to it.” With that, she was gone. Mel looked around the room and realized everyone was smiling. In the center of the circle were the chains in a pile, nothing but a bit of smoldering ash between them. Rita broke the silence first, “Now that’s how you banish a motherfucker!” She said cheerfully, laughing. 

Ariel’s group stayed that night in the house, cleansing and helping clean up the mess. Mel joked that it was time to start cleaning out some stuff anyways, and she sort of meant it. She had been holding on to things, material things. When it came down to it, the things only made her sad anyways. And she had made a promise to Aris she intended to keep. 

Mel got a call the next day as the group was packing up to head out. The local police were calling. They were sorry to inform her that her father had been found dead. His house had caught fire. All they could tell her was they were still investigating the circumstances of his death. A week later she found out he had not left a will, and so as his only surviving heir she inherited everything. She didn’t think there was much left to inherit, but as it turned out he had a bank account with enough money in it to change her life.She donated his body to science and took a large chunk of the money, donating it to different charities. She offered to pay Ariel and her group, but Ariel declined, saying they wouldn’t feel right accepting it, but to thank them by paying it forward. Mel and Riki moved into a house with two wings, one for Riki and one for herself, and Mel couldn’t have been happier. There were days and nights where she and Riki both had thoughts and feelings they knew weren’t their own. The Kenning had bound them to the group it seemed, at least for now. Mel missed Aris, every day. But she also reminded herself of her promise, and when she got sad that Aris was gone, she honored that feeling and then remembered embracing her swathed in brilliant purple light, and every time she remembered that moment, Mel smiled.

Ashes: An Open Door

     Darkness. That was definitely ominous all on its own. Mel had known many forms of darkness since Aris had left this world. The darkness of pure, unadulterated rage at losing her life partner, the murky haze of the stages of grief that just seemed to cycle through denial and isolation, anger and heartache, with a never ending sense of loneliness and loss. But this was a different darkness. Run. Dark. Aris had spelled it out, telling her to run. Stop evil. What had she meant by that? Mel couldn’t figure out if she was saying the board was evil or there was some other unknown evil she needed to stop. Her phone buzzed, and Mel saw with real irritation that her dad was calling again and that the call was still not being forwarded to voicemail. She rejected the call then blocked his number. She had no intention of talking to him any time soon.  

Mel laid with her mind racing as she tried to allow sleep to claim her. She was too afraid to call out to Aris, afraid she might get an answer, and equally afraid that she wouldn’t. What was the next step? She couldn’t just ignore what happened. Riki stayed the night, and was snoring loudly in the guest room, but Mel didn’t mind. It was a reminder that for right now, she wasn’t alone. Riki had taken one of the sleeping pills and knocked right out, but Mel was still too afraid to allow her state of mind to be altered in any way, even if it meant tossing and turning all night. She focused in on the pattern of her best friend’s snores, matching her breathing pattern and finally, mercifully, was swaddled in the warm, safe arms of sleep. 

Sandalwood. Aris always smelled of sandalwood with hints of vanilla and cocoa butter. The hygiene products she used had scented the whole house every time she showered. But her skin added to the aroma, salty with a bit of muskiness to it that was far from unpleasant. Mel used to nestle her head in the crook of Aris’ neck and lust breathe her in. She was doing so now, arms wrapped around her love, chin tucked down and eyes closed, just breathing in the scent of her as if she would memorize every facet. She smiled lightly, a sensation that felt foreign on her face. With that thought came another, why would smiling feel forgeign? Aris made her smile constantly, with her witty humor and her laugh, which always seemed to emanate from her belly, full of life and joy. Mel couldn’t help but smile, especially when she lay with her lover and they just absorbed the light of one another’s presence. So why should it feel so odd, wrong even, to smile? Mel tried to open her eyes and sit up to look at Aris. Her body didn’t budge. Her eyes stayed shut, as if the lids were glued together. Had she forgotten to remove some makeup before they went to bed? No, she wouldn’t, that wasn’t right. She told her hand to move from its spot resting on Aris’ chest and wipe her eyes, but that betrayed her as well. Not even a flinch. Mel’s heart started to pound in her chest. No, something is wrong, she thought. This can’t be real. She tried then to roll over and away from Aris, and still her body wouldn’t budge. She felt suddenly heavy, like instead of flesh and bone, her body was made of sand. She was sure she was pressing deeper into their mattress with the weight and felt her hand and arm pushing down with the weight onto Aris’ chest where it lay. Mel heard Aris whimper from the pressure. She tried to call out to her, scream her name, beg for help, anything, but all that came out was a hoarse whisper, barely audible over Aris’ breathing. Breathing? Was she breathing right? No, now that the thought occurred to her, Mel realized that Aris was not breathing right at all. She was breathing on short, strangled gasps, as if having trouble getting air. “Baby,” Aris whimpered,” baby, you’re hurting me. Please, stop, wake up.” Aris’ plea was heart-rending, and at that moment Mel would have cut off her own arm to stop the pressure if she could, but she was utterly paralyzed. “Aris, help,” she tried to say, but again it was a barely audible croak. 

“Mel, please!” This was more frantic, a cry rather than a whimper. Mel felt her hand pressing impossibly hard down on Aris chest of its own volition and she grew nauseated when she felt and heard a loud crack  beneath it. Aris screamed then, and Mel realized in terror that her ribs had been broken by the sheer weight of pressure. Mel pulled all of her might from the depths of her being and willed her body to move, to turn away, to relieve that pressure. She couldn’t allow this to happen. She wouldn’t. She breathed in and smelled…dirt. Earth. Soil and mold. No, that could be right. Her eyes flew open with that thought, though her body still would not move. She stared in a horrified stupor as she took in the sight before her. She was laying, curled up against and actually crushing a corpse. A corpse too rotted to recognize, teeth bared in death’s final grimace, hollowed out sockets where eyes had once been, and tatters of flesh hanging off bone. As she watched, her hand sank between the ribcage and dove into the rotting flesh, cold and slimy, coating her fingers and getting under her nails. “Aris,” Mel whispered, “Aris, please, where are you?” She could hear her voice more clearly now that the breathing beside her had stopped. The corpse turned to look at her with its twin empty caverns and though the jaw did not move, she knew it was speaking to her when it said, “Aris is dead, my love, it’s just you and me now. You called on the Darkness, now I will swallow you slow.”  Mel shrieked, and this came out full force. She felt her body jolt, as if a thousand pounds of pressure had been suddenly released from her, and she sat straight up, knocking her head into Riki’s.

“Goddamn Mel, look out will ya!” Riki said as she jumped back holding a hand to her eye, where Mel’s forehead had made contact. Mel said nothing, instead leaping from the bed screaming and grabbing her friend telling her to run. “It’s the Darkness, Riki, run! It will eat us both!” Riki grabbed both Mel’s shoulders and made her still for a moment. “Mel, sweetie, there’s nothing there. You had a nightmare. Look at me, Mel! It was a nightmare. I’m right here. Breathe, honey, breathe. It’s okay, you are safe. Just breathe.” Mel turned and pointed to the bed, taking in a breath to tell Riki it was right there, in the bed with her, and she froze. There was nothing. Fucking nothing. Her bed was empty but for the blankets hanging off the edge and the pillows which were now tossed all over in chaos. Her jaw went slack and all at once she had the urge to look under the bed. It was there. Had to be. That’s where all the monsters hid when the lights came on, wasn’t it? She took another deep breath in, trying to steady herself. She sensed the faintest hint of Sandalwood. And beneath that, an even fainter hint of soil. Mel barely made it to her bathroom in time to heave up the remnants of her PB and J and pickles.What the fuck was going on here?

Riki brought her a wet cloth and a glass of water, then gave her a little space to clean up the aftermath of the horrific nightmare. Was it a nightmare though? Shit, after all they had experienced the night before, Mel was having a hard time just dismissing it as just a nightmare, or even a night terror, which she hadn’t had since she was a little girl. They were awful, and felt real, but not the way this had. This was a whole new kind of fucked up she didn’t even have the words for. She had done her best to explain to Riki what happened and now they were sitting at the dining room table talking about what to do next. 

“First things first, Mel, I think the ouija board has to go. Maybe even be burned or something. It was obviously the opposite of helpful.” Mel sighed and said, “Maybe you’re right Rik, but it was her! I know it was her, talking to us. I can feel it. How can I just throw away that connection?” 

“Maybe it was her, Mel, but it wasn’t just her. Couldn’t have been. If you take into account what happened this morning, you have to admit Aris would never torture you like that. Unless, of course, it was just a nightmare.” Riki threw her hands up in a “take it easy” gesture and said, “I know, I know, you feel like it was more than a dream, and I believe you. But what I am saying is if that is the case, then we opened a door to something else, not just Aris. And we need to close that bitch.”

Mel chuckled bitterly and said, “you always have such a way with words, Riki. I will take it out somewhere and toss it. If it’s not in the house anymore, we should be good, right?” Riki said, “Honestly, I hope you’re right. But I don’t know. Maybe we should consult an expert or something?”

And that was just the trouble, how did one go about finding an expert in such things. I mean, yes, you could go online and search up all kinds of groups and people who claimed to be experts on the subject of communicating with the dead, or the use of occult items and the like, you could find witches, warlocks, spiritual guides and mediums, but how could you tell if they were legitimate? The occult world was full of scammers and charlatans who claimed to have this power or that knowledge or this ability, but in the end they were just preying on the desperate and lonely in the world, and lord knew there were plenty of fools to go around. Mel was a lot of things, but she never fancied herself a fool, and thus tried to avoid doing foolish things. Though no one was perfect, and her purchase of the hundred dollar ouija board of doom was proof of that. Okay, maybe ‘of doom’ was a bit dramatic, but it certainly had caused turmoil, hadn’t it? Not that her house had been exactly peaceful since Aris’ departure, but it had been quiet. Solemn, but quiet. Now Mel had no idea what to expect from one second to the next, and worse than that, she was scared. She knew Riki had her own life to tend to and would have to leave eventually, but she was outright dreading having to face being alone in the house. Maybe it was time for her to move. Mel physically shuddered at the thought. This place was where some of her most precious memories had been made with Aris. It had been their home, and Mel was not about to give it up without a fight. 

“Okay, Mel?” Riki asked, concern apparent on her face. Mel nodded and then got up to put her glass in the sink along with Riki’s. “Yeah, Riki, I’m okay.”

“Liar.” Riki said, and got up and embraced her best friend in a warm, solid, reassuring hug. Mel tensed for a moment, then relaxed into her friend’s arms and cried. She shook with trembling breaths and sobbed until she was empty again. Riki held her through it all, cooing in her ear and stroking her hair as she cried. “It’s alright, Mel. It’s gonna be okay. I’ve got you.” 

After some time had passed the tears slowed, then stopped. Mel stepped away from her friend and said, “Thanks for that.” Riki shrugged and smiled, “Any time, lady. I was thinking, what if we go back to the shop where you bought it? I know you said there are no returns, but maybe the lady at the shop will have some answers.”

“Damn, that’s a great idea. And so simple. Why didn’t I think of it before?” 

“You know I am the brains of this operation,” Riki poked her jokingly and Mel rolled her eyes, grabbing the Ouija board and saying, “Let’s go. We’ll bring it just in case.” They headed to the door and as Mel opened it to step out, she yelped with surprise. Standing in front of her, hand poised as if to knock, was a young woman she had never seen before. Mel recovered quickly and said, “Oh! Hi, I’m sorry I didn’t realize someone was at the door. It’s not a great time just now, we are heading out.”

The young woman, blonde and pale, with eyes of a lovely swirling grey, like storm clouds, looked down at the ouija board in hand and said, “Hi, Mel. You don’t know me, but my name is Ariel. And I definitely know of you. You, Riki, Aris and your father. As well as what happened to you these last few days. Don’t be frightened, I haven’t been spying on you or anything weird. I dreamed it all. And I want to help. Me and my friends may be the only ones who can help, given what you let in.”

Mel stammered, “W-what I let in?”

Ariel looked at her patiently, “Yes, Mel. The Întuneric, or if you prefer, The Darkness.”

As she spoke the word, a chill went up Mel’s spine and she heard Riki gasp next to her. 

Ariel looked behind the two of them, as if seeing something no one else could see. Her pale grey eyes seemed to darken in that moment, going more steel than soft rain could, and she spoke a word Mel couldn’t understand. With that, the chill was gone in an instant and Mel released a breath she hadn’t realized she had been holding. “I think I had better come in and explain. If you don’t want my help after I have told you what you need to know, I will leave. But if you do want my help, know it will cost you nothing but your time and effort in closing the door that was opened. My friends will come and we will all help to make this place safe for you again.”

Mel looked at her, the question in her eyes unspoken but understood, as Ariel answered. “ No, Mel. It’s not safe right now. Not for you, nor Riki. And not for Aris.” Ariel looked behind them again, this time with a soft sadness on her face, and without asking, Mel knew from the bottom of her broken heart that Ariel had seen Aris there, standing behind them. She stepped back from the threshold and said to Ariel, “Please, come in. We are obviously in over our heads.”

Safe Zone, Episode 1

      Their dad was never a good guy. He wasn’t the worst either, but he definitely had what one might call “areas of opportunity.” Hell, when it came down to it, the guy was just a run of the mill, narcissistic asshole, right out of some psych textbook. Still, Jessie supposed he didn’t deserve to be left to whatever fate found him. Even if he had left her and her sister to fend for themselves when everything went to absolute shit. Winter had been very forthcoming on her thoughts about the matter. “Dude, fuck that guy. He literally left us to die and didn’t think twice. We’re better off without him.” She spat after saying this last, adding emphasis to her point. 

     “Winter, I get that. He’s a dick and he deserted us. But we are not like him and that’s exactly why we have to go find him. It’s not like there’s anywhere safe to go anyways. And we’ve been ok so far, we just need to go back to the house and check! We have to try.” Jessie said this with no compromise in her voice. She wouldn’t leave Winter, but she would drag her kicking and screaming if she had to. She was not going to allow either of them to live with the guilt that could come from not finding their cowardly father and at least trying to survive. They were all that was left of their little family unit.

     Their mom had left when Jessie was nine and Winter wasn’t even a year old yet. She hadn’t been interested in taking the girls with her, only in escaping the tyranny that was living with their dad, Tom. They had come home from school one day to find him raging, destroying what was left of the furniture, dishes, and anything he could get his hands on in fury, screaming about how she would pay and calling her every name in the book. Of course, she was long gone with the majority of the furnishings and didn’t hear any of his empty threats. Nor did she have to clean up the mess he made. No, that was up to their nine year old child to do once he passed out drunk and exhausted from his hours long tantrum. They never heard from her again and that was 17 years ago, so the way Jessie saw it their mother had died that day. Winter didn’t remember her, just from photos that Jessie was able to squirrel away and keep from Tom so that she would at least know what she looked like. Throughout the years, they had tried searching for her by name on social media and online, even tried reaching out to her family, but no one knew where she was. And what was harder is that none of them wanted anything to do with the mess she left behind. 

     That all seemed so irrelevant now, like a life lived by someone else. The last twenty four hours had been a transmutation of their existence. It felt like a whole other lifetime had passed, and a miserable one. And it wasn’t just for Jessie and Winter. It was, well, everyone.

     It had started with a bang. Literally. The White House had exploded. It was all over the news. But it wasn’t just the White House. It was every government building, across the US. At least at first that’s what they thought. The local post offices everywhere from large metropolitan areas to tiny towns that were barely a blip on the map. Economic security buildings, law offices, court houses, congress, even national monuments. Mount Rushmore, which in Jessie’s opinion was no great loss, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, and so many countless others, gone. And along with them, no one knew how many lives lost.  

     Then reports started coming in from Europe, the UK, Japan, China, North and South Korea, all over the Middle East, Mexico, Canada. Any place where there was a government at all, there were mass explosions. Except, of all places, Australia. Word was that it was somehow a safe zone, and that those who were left alive and able were fleeing there. It might have been okay if it had stopped there, devastating, but not End of Days devastating. However, the explosions were just the beginning.  

Photo by Torben Bu00fchl on Pexels.com

  Within hours, as Jessie and Winter sat glued to the TV in the house, Tom wailing in the background about how he was going to be out of a job, how were they going to keep the lights on, everything bad always happened to him and other such lamentations, the real horror began playing out on the screen in front of them. Footage started rolling while the anchor advised that the following video was highly disturbing and to use discretion if there were children in the room. At first,it was too smoky to see much of anything but rubble and shadows. The text on the screen proclaimed this to be in Minneapolis, but it looked about the same as everywhere else they had seen. Destroyed. The only reason their own area didn’t look this way was that, though Tom bitched about the commute daily, their mother had insisted on living as far out of the city as they could get. Tom talked about it constantly, saying how if he had never met Leslie, he would have been free of the burden of children he was raising alone, and living life in the fast lane, the city life. He talked about it so often, it became white noise to both Jessie and Winter. Like a smoke alarm you can’t reach that needs a new battery but has been beeping for so long, you don’t even notice it anymore. As the video continued, the smoke began to clear and the scene before them unfolded, one piece at a time. There were bodies, and pieces of bodies, everywhere. There were piles and piles of rubble and rebar and glass, speckled with bright red spattering here and there. There were pools of red, and people literally crawling reaching out to anyone nearby. You could hear the cries, the screams, and a woman shouting particularly loud, “We deserve this! Oh, God, it’s our punishment, we deserve this!”  Jessie found that to be the most unsettling part, or so she had thought. Rain started to fall on the scene and the camera zoomed in on first responders tending to the hordes of wounded laid out on cots in the street, some so burned they couldn’t even be covered with a sheet Jessie guessed, or maybe they had just run out. 

The rain began to fall in earnest, sheets of it pouring down on the wounded, the dying and the dead, as well as those trying to save whomever they could. Within seconds, everyone was drenched. And seconds after that, the air was shattered by a thundering chorus of wails that sounded near inhuman. Everyone with the ability to do so was screaming in piercing agony, barely stopping to breathe it seemed. The camera crashed to the ground but kept rolling and the viewers, inclusive of Jessie, Winter and even Tom who had finally shut his pie hole, watched as every person within view began writhing on the ground, some begging for help but most issuing wordless and repeated cries of pain and fear. They began to vomit, screaming between retches, and blood began to pour from their eyes, nose, ears and mouth as they did. The detail seemed to be sharpened by the terror of it all. The bright red flowing from every possible orifice of everyone, even the first responders who were basically unscathed only moments ago. Even the torrential rain couldn’t wash away the blood as fast as it was spewing from them. “Dear God,” Jessie had whispered and at the same time Winter had said “Fuck. We are so fucked.” Neither of them had any idea just how bad things were going to get. And just how fast. 

It was everywhere, according to the news. They were calling it “The Hemorrhaging,” which had seemed appropriate. Each and every place that had been demolished by the explosions had the same outbreak of screeching, convulsive, bloody, mass death. What was worse, if possible, was that it wasn’t just limited to the blast sites. It was the surrounding areas as well. Homes, filled with women, children, whole families, schools, churches, it didn’t matter. This made it clear that the effect was caused by some sort of airborne chemical agent. Reports were saying to stay in your homes, not to open any doors or windows, that it may not be safe outside anywhere. Not for the first time since this had started, Jessie thanked her mother mentally for at least giving them this one thing before she left. Making them move out in the boonies and away from everyone. 

Photo by Denniz Futalan on Pexels.com

“We have to go!” Tom shouted suddenly. “We have to catch the next flight to Australia!” Tom, the fearless CIA agent, wanted to run for the hills. He threw them their bug out bags, something he made them keep prepared at all times and said, “It’s time!” Winter rolled her eyes at Jessie and Jessie said, “No dad, that is not a good idea. It’s airborne. We have to stay put. At least until we come up with a plan.” “Jessie, this is not a debate. I have taught both of you girls everything you need to be useful through this, please don’t be a pain in my ass, I have enough to deal with.” Jessie stood up, and with that, Winter stood next to her. “I am not being a pain in the ass, Tom, I am trying to keep us from getting dead like the people on TV. We have these bags full of basic survival needs, extra clothes, shoes and supplies, but we don’t know what something like this is going to require. Our home hasn’t been compromised and we are away from damn near everyone. Think logically for once!”

“Don’t call me Tom, you know that pisses me off. And I am thinking logically. The whole damn WORLD has been compromised! Except Australia. It’s a Safe Zone. We are going. Either that or both of you can stay here and take your chances without the SUV. See how far you get without me.” 

“Oh for fucks sake, Tom,” Winter said. “Do you think it is just that easy to jump on a plane to the only supposed ‘safe zone’ in the fucking WORLD? Are you really that dumb?”

Tom flinched at her last word. It was something Leslie used to say to him all the time when they argued, though Winter had no way of knowing that. Maybe it was that very fact that made it all the worse. If multiple people said it to you, did that make it feel more true? Jessie didn’t know but as she watched Tom’s face go from red to purple, she stepped in between her little sister and their father. “Get it together, dad,” Jessie said in a calm, reasonable voice. He had never hit either of them, except for in sparring practice when he was training them in all the martial arts skills he had in his repertoire. His thing was verbal abuse, not physical. But Jessie wasn’t taking the chance. 

“Don’t talk to me like that, I am in perfect control,” Tom said through gritted teeth. Still the color began to drain from his face and his fists, previously clenched at his sides, relaxed. Jessie had found a long time ago that reminding Tom that he had a reputation to protect was the fastest way to get him to chill out. It wasn’t any love he had for the girls that did it. It was that he wanted everyone to believe the persona he presented as a perfect father. 

“Okay, so then you can see that it is not reasonable to leave, dad.” Jessie said this in the same calm tone, stern but even. “We don’t want to react in emotion.”

“Jessie, I work for the government. They are going to start searching homes next. Whatever organization was responsible for this, they are not going to stop at the buildings where we work. We are at our weakest now, as a country. They are going to come looking. We can’t stay here. You and your sister get your shit, we are going. Bus leaves in thirty minutes, with or without you. That’s final.” 

Jessie sighed in frustration. They couldn’t be left out here without any method of transportation. They needed to be able to be mobile if necessary. She tugged Winter by the sleeve and said, “Let’s go, kid. We gotta pack some extras.” Each of the bags had a 9mm Sig Sauer and a good supply of rounds, as well as a folding utility knife, razor sharp and a larger bowie knife for if things got really messy. Neither Jessie nor Winter ever believed these bags would be necessary, but their dad had insisted they be kept up to standard. They included MRE’s as well, where they had come from Jessie did not know. There was about a month’s supply of them though, and they were lightweight enough not to be hobbling. Aside from the weapons and rations, there were extra clothes, blankets, lighters, oil lamps and flashlights as well as walkie talkies with fresh batteries. This was a great start, but Jessie needed some other things. Winter looked at her as they went up the stairs and asked “What are we doing sis?” Jessie was pretty sure that they would never see this home again, nor anything in it. She grabbed the box hidden in the back of her closet, simply labeled, “School Stuff,”and shoved it in her bag. Jessie hadn’t been in school for years, but it seemed the most likely label to keep Tom from being a snoopy fuck, and had so far been effective. Inside the box were all she had remaining of their mom. A few photos, a lock of hair from when their mom had trimmed her hair for the first time,  and Leslie’s ID and birth certificate. She had hidden these carefully through the years, hoping one day to reconnect with Leslie, or at least be able to get some kind of closure. They looked so like her, both the girls. Yet she left them. And with Tom of all people.  And now, there was this craziness. Jessie reached under her bed and fished out the other item she was looking for. It was another, smaller bag, small enough to fit in the first. Jessie opened it quickly to check it, and also so Winter could see inside. It was her .45, extra rounds and two asps as well as two taser flashlights. “Damn, sis, were you planning on going to war anytime soon?” Winter asked, shocked and smiling just a little. Jessie said, “Better to be safe, one for each of us, except the .45. She’s all mine.” She shoved the smaller bag in the large duffle and said, “Let’s go load up the water we have, you know this douche will forget.” Winter rolled her eyes again, a gesture she was a professional at, scoffed and then followed Jessie down the stairs. 

The water was all loaded in the back, as well as a shotgun they had in the garage. They threw the bags in the back as well and then Jessie went to go check the latest news reports. That turned out to be futile as the news no longer existed. Every channel was just some version of experiencing technical difficulties, sorry. She checked her cell phone to see if there was digital news to read, and there was no signal, the wifi was not working and neither, apparently, were the cell towers. “Oh this is bad, bad.” Jessie said it to herself but Winter responded anyway, “Yeah, no shit.” 

“Why do you always have to cuss so much, kid?” Jessie asked her. It didn’t really bother her, she just liked to tease her sister about it.

“Learned from the best herself!” Winter said and bowed down in a mock curtsy. They both laughed a little, and Jessie thought about how lucky she was to at least still be here with her sister. She had long since been ready and able to move out, working full time as a teacher at the closest High School and saving every penny. Her dad owned the house they lived in, so there was no rent or mortgage on the house. Tom just asked that she pay her portion of the utilities and take care of her little sister, which she would have done anyway. Winter was why she had stayed. She had saved up more than enough money these last years, though she supposed that was all irrelevant now. But she had promised Winter she wouldn’t leave until she could take her sister with her, and Tom would not have let that happen while Winter was under legal adult age, because he dearly loved control. Just as he loved giving them the ultimatum to go with him or be left stranded. He loved feeling powerful. Jessie was sure that was why he had gotten into his line of work. Worked his way all the way up to CIA operative lording power over people, yet now here he was running with his tail tucked between his legs. 

“Let’s go, move!” He shouted unnecessarily as they were in the same room. Jessie and Winter headed to the garage and Jessie told him calmly, “Water is all packed and the bags are in the back. No cell service, no internet, and no TV. My guess is the radio will be down as well.” Tom grunted at this, saying nothing of consequence and they got in the SUV, headed towards an airport Jessie knew would be a futile venture. It wasn’t as if she could take all her weapons on a plane, even if by some miracle there was a flight available, but she had a notion it would never get that far. Things had gone to absolute shit, there was no “Safe Zone” for them, and everyone in the vehicle knew it, even if Tom was in denial. “We are stopping at the shopping center,” he said. “There’s not gonna be many people there so it should be easy pickings. We need to make sure we have enough supplies, just in case. Better to be safe.” Jessie hated hearing her own words echoed by the man, but he wasn’t wrong. This was a long haul sort of deal. “You girls go in and get everything we might need, I will stay with the car and make sure no one gets any funny ideas” This sent a pang of unease through her gut, but Jessie also wouldn’t trust him to remember everything useful and in fact was certain he’d forget something crucial and come back with odds and ends. She said simply, “Right.”

Winter and Jessie went into the superstore they had in town, and it was eerily empty. It was unlocked, and there was no looting happening, but people were just filling their carts with what they needed and leaving. Like they were shopping, and they were just putting it on the tab. There were no employees to be seen and actually very few people indeed, so they were able to make quick work of it. After filling up their cart as well with the necessities, they looked everywhere for someone to pay, but found no one. They left with the goods and Jessie felt like she had stepped right into a science fiction film. The SUV was there, running. The driver’s side door was open, and Jessie cursed Tom for being an idiot as she thought he probably went to go pee or something. Asshole. She quickly grabbed the keys from the ignition, then grabbed the 9mm from her bag, telling Winter to do the same. “Where the fuck is he?” she asked. “I don’t know sis, but his bag is still here. Thank God all our stuff is still here. Dumb ass was doing a hell of a job protecting the car.” They unloaded the supplies then climbed inside, closing the doors and locking them while they waited. And waited. And waited. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

After two hours had passed, Winter looked at Jessie and broke the silence. “He’s not coming back, sis. He left us, just like mom. We can’t stay here, and I think he’s right about them coming to the house. Either them or the government, or what’s left of it. Either way, this is not going to be good. We have to go.” Just then, they heard a sharp tap tap on the window. They both looked over and saw a man they had never seen before in a black suit and sunglasses. His long, suited arm was extended in front of him, and at the end of it was what he had used to tap on the window. An absurdly large pistol, pointing directly at Jessie. “Out of the car.” He said.    

Private Office

Comfort or aesthetics? Rose wasn’t sure which to go with, and she was already running late. She was dressing for a meeting she had with her boss that day, an important one, and so she wanted to look her best but also wanted to be focused on the task at hand. Rose had been the top performer for months running, her team constantly blowing the goals out of the water, and today was her performance review. She was in a position to negotiate for not just a well deserved promotion, but also an office of her own and a much more robust salary. She just wanted to make sure she felt her most confident and secure when dealing with her boss, because Sean could be quite a prick when he wanted to be. He was reasonable enough, Rose supposed, but he always tried to make you feel like there was more you could be doing. His favorite saying was, “ What else could we have done to make it even better?” And today was Rose’s day, she was going to make damn sure of  it. She had chosen a grey pencil skirt, knee length with a tasteful slit on the side that kept it business professional but also comfy. She had paired this with a white collared button down blouse with frilled sleeves that left her feeling powerful and pretty. The heels she chose were also not the issue, they screamed pretty, powerful professional and were still easy to walk in all day. No, the trouble was the panties. If she wore the comfortable cotton panties, she would have a visible panty line. Something so silly shouldn’t bother her, she knew, but it did. Everyone wore undergarments, and no one in the workplace should be looking for the outline of hers, but there it was on her mind anyway. But if she wore the lace thong or even the cotton thong, she would run the risk of it riding up at the wrong time and causing her to be distracted. Rose’s attention to detail was one of the things that made her so excellent at her job, but right now it was driving her crazy.

“Fuck it.” Rose said it outloud and threw all her panty choices back in the drawer. Her panties wouldn’t be able to bother or distract her if she just didn’t wear any, and as a matter of fact, as she walked to her car, the extra breeze between her legs seemed to empower her further, a type of secret freedom that no one could take from her. After all, the devil is in the details, she thought, and laughed to herself. She was so going to be moving into her new office this week. Maybe even today. 

Rounding the corner into the restroom to check her makeup before heading into Sean’s office, Rose heard a familiar voice call out shrilly, “Can you believe it? They fired  him!!” It was Debbie, one of the other managers from the site, and someone who couldn’t resist even the faintest bit of gossip. Debbie was talking to another coworker of theirs, and Rose skirted around the conversation, trying to avoid eye contact, to no avail. “Rose! They fired Sean!” Rose felt her face fall before she could catch herself. What did this mean for her performance review? Her raise? Her office? “Shit,” Rose said. “I know! Apparently he was taking money from the budget to pay for certain, um, people’s personal expenses.” Debbie put this last in air quotes, raising her eyebrows lasciviously and then cackled. Rose didn’t say anything to that, just nodded and walked out of the bathroom, determined to find out what was going to happen next. Sean was no great loss, in her opinion, but she also didn’t care about the rumour mill that would no doubt be circulating about his unexpected departure. He was the site director, so there was no one on site above him to speak to typically, but somebody would have had to come give him the axe. And that somebody was who she needed to see. 

Rose headed for Sean’s office first and it turned out to be great instinct on her part. She  entered the office with the door slightly ajar and found a woman seated at his former desk, looking irritatedly at a pile of mess and paperwork in front of her. “Hello, I’m Rose Garner,” Rose walked up to the desk, offering a handshake to the woman who looked up, surprised, but not hostile. The woman stood and accepted her handshake with a warm firm grasp just long enough to feel the strength in her hand but not so long that it became aggressive. Rose met her eyes as she said, “Hi Ms. Garner, my name is Gabrielle Trent. You can call me Gabby.Sean has moved on to other opportunities and I am here in the interim to appoint a replacement for him.”

“Thank you, Gabby. Please, call me Rose. I actually came to see if there was an option to have you, or maybe the person you intend to appoint, conduct my performance review? I realize that there is a lot going on at the moment, but it is something I have been looking forward to and would very much appreciate.” 

Gabby smiled in an inviting and knowing way. “A woman who is focused on her goals is a beautiful thing,” she said. “As it happens, I am familiar with you, and with your performance review results. You are consistently on top, it would seem.” Rose felt herself flush with pride a bit at this, and was suddenly more aware of her bare bottom and other areas. She moved towards a chair in the office and Gabby followed her lead, taking a seat as well. As Rose sat, she felt a fluttering between her legs. Must be misplaced nerves, she thought. Though it had not escaped her notice that Gabby was a very attractive woman. She was tall and statuesque, with womanly curves accentuated by her well tailored pants suit. She was masculine presenting, but had an undeniable femininity to her features with, plump lips, a beautiful smile and bright, sharp eyes that met hers unflinchingly and confidently. Oh yes, the woman was lovely. Distractingly so. 

“Rose? You with me?” Rose was mortified to realize she had spent an inordinate amount of seconds simply looking at Gabby, taking her in, and not speaking at all. “Yes! Of course, sorry about that.” She shook her head with an awkward smile. “You were saying you had seen the performance review?” Gabby smiled again at this, giving Rose direct eye contact as she said, “Yes, and that you are always on top.” Rose blushed harder than she should at this, since she was sure she was imagining the double entendre, and said “Yes well, I like to be the best at what I do.” 

Photo by John Rocha on Pexels.com

“Clearly.” Gabby said this with that same smile on her face and then continued. “As I mentioned, I am here to appoint a replacement for the site director position. We have already decided that if you are up for it, we would like to offer that position to you. The papers are all here, ready to be reviewed and signed and you can also take over the office, with apologies for the cleaning you will have to do in here after your predecessor ” Rose was struck speechless for a moment. This position was several leaps up the ladder for her, and she knew she could do it, but had expected to have to climb her way up a bit longer. “Wow, that’s amazing! Of course I accept.” Rose paused for a moment and then said, “but..” Gabby raised a questioning eyebrow at her in a way that caused Rose to actually clench her thighs. This woman was dangerously attractive. Rose stammered a bit, stumbling over the distraction and then righted herself, “I’d like a different office.” 

Gabby laughed at that, a husky, sultry sound that seemed more at home in a bedroom than a workplace. “I’m sure that can be arranged, which office were you thinking about?”

“It’s probably easier if I show you,” Rose said, and stood. Gabby stood at the same time and gestured towards the door. “After you Rose.” 

Rose walked down the hallway towards the office she had set her sights on. It was a corner office, away from all of the daily hustle and bustle. It was quiet and more secluded than the rest, with blinds on the windows that she thought would make for a very comfortable workspace when she just wanted to focus. As she walked, Rose became increasingly aware of heat growing from between her legs and up her back. She knew, right to her core, that Gabby was watching her walk. The breeze between her legs where panties were absent caused a shiver of pleasure to thrill through her, and she realized that she was growing wet. Noticeably wet. She felt the slick slip of her lower lips against one another as she neared the door, opened it and then turned to find Gabby still smiling and walking up behind her with a swagger that only comes with the knowledge that you were just given a show for an audience of one. Gabby stepped inside the office next to Rose and made a show of looking around. There was a large desk, a chair, filing cabinets and some office supplies scattered about. 

“Why this office, Rose?” Gabby looked at her, really looked at her, taking in the view from top to bottom, lingering on her lips, neck, breasts, hips and legs, as if memorizing the curves. It was Rose’s turn to smile knowingly. They were playing a dangerous game, both of them knew, but whether it was the excitement over her new position, this woman’s unbelievable allure, or the empowerment of having on no panties and soaking her inner thighs with her own juices as she walked, Rose was  in no mood for caution. “It’s…private,” Rose said, and closed the door, stepping in closer to Gabby. She could smell her cologne, and her skin, salty and sweet at once. “That it is, Rose. Very, very private.” Gabby pushed up against her, sending a thrill through Rose from her center through to her fingertips and drawing a gasp from her. Gabby looked directly into her eyes and said, “I’m going to fuck you, Rose,” as she closed the blinds. Rose whispered against Gabby’s lips, “yes, please,” and kissed the other woman deeply. 

Gabby wrapped her arms around Rose, pulling her tight into the kiss and grinding against her most sensitive parts. A whimper came from between Rose’s lips and was met with another laugh from Gabby’s. Gabby slid her hands around Rose’s ass, cupping it and squeezing it as she explored her mouth with her tongue, caressing, sucking, biting and savoring her taste.  Rose’s wetness had grown into a flood between her legs and her clit was now roaring with demand, needing to be touched. “Please,” she groaned and moved as if to push Gabby down into the chair. “No, no, Rose. You’re always on top, and I think you deserve a break, don’t you?” Gabby grabbed her by the throat, firmly but not painfully, and pushed her back onto the desk, laying her back on it lengthwise. She kissed her again, pushing the skirt up above her hips and as her fingers found bare skin, she laughed once more. “No panties today? Did you know I was coming?” Before Rose could answer, Gabby ran a finger over her swollen clit, firm and slow. Rose cried out and Gabby said, “Shhh baby, private doesn’t mean sound proof. Be a good girl for me and let me give you what you deserve. Be quiet and take it.” Rose bucked her hips against Gabby’s touch, impossibly thrilled by the taboo of it all and by the way this woman moved and touched her, like she knew every secret her body held. Gabby inserted her fingers in Rose’s wetness, stretching her tightness and testing the space there, then stroking in her while her thumb massaged the pearl tongue. She kissed her deeply, penetrating her mouth with her tongue and mirroring those strokes with her fingers, finding a slow, firm and deep rhythm that Rose caught and moved along with helplessly. She fought to keep quiet as the pressure built and the pleasure mounted. She whimpered and whispered over and over, “Please, Gabby please, please.” 

“Look at you, such a good girl, so pretty as you come apart under me.” Gabby whispered this huskily and groaned in pleasure. “You’re so wet, baby. So fucking wet for me. I’m gonna taste you as you cum for me.” And with that, Gabby moved her mouth quickly downward and sealed her lips against Rose’s pussy, sucking and flicking her tongue, hot and wet, over and over that swollen wound, teasing it with her teeth and then sucking it again. Rose reached out and grabbed on to Gabby’s arms and pumped her hips against that rhythm, thrusting and bucking and fighting for control. Gabby pinned her down and said “Stop fucking moving and let me take it.” She then pushed one finger inside Rose and sucked harder, massaging inside and outside at once and moaned against her wetness. Her moans grew and rhythm sped and finally Rose begged “Please, I need to cum, I need it!” Gabby pushed deeper and her body went rigid with pleasure as she said, “Cum with me, now!” Rose came undone from her very core, eyes rolling back and nails digging in as groans of pure ecstasy came from Gabby’s lips and vibrated against her climax. They moved their bodies as one, riding the wave of pleasure until both of them trembled with release. 

Gabby stood shakily and smiled, licking her lips. “Well Rose,” she said. “I think this office will do just fine.”  

Ashes: Darkness

Photo by Farzad Sedaghat on Pexels.com

     “A Ouija board? Like a real Ouija board? The ones you always hear never to play with. Mel, I don’t know about that being the best idea. I love you, you’re my best friend, and I want to be supportive but this may not be helpful for your grief and your current state of…distress.” Mel laughed humorlessly at the choice of words. Riki had been her best friend since college; she rarely felt the need to edit or filter herself. Yet, here she was, thinking about a word choice that would be gentle. She wouldn’t call Mel crazy, she felt that word to be an overused insult and had strong opinions about people who minimized other’s feelings by saying “Oh they’re just crazy.” Distress? Yeah, that seemed pretty accurate to Mel. She was very much distressed. Actually it was a bit of an understatement. She was downright frenetic both mentally and emotionally. 

     “I hear you, Riki, but I already bought it. For a pretty penny, too. It would be a waste to not use it and the shop doesn’t accept returns or exchanges. Plus, I’m telling you, I wasn’t imagining it. I heard her. Really. And if I can just talk to her, just one more time, even if it’s through the world’s oldest form of text message, I have to do it. If nothing else, I can NOT have another nightmare like that.” 

      “Alright, but let it be known that I voiced my objection. I’ll be over tonight. I’m not letting you do this alone, even if it does sound a little…risky.” Mel snorted and said, “Girl, that is two thoughtful pauses in as many minutes. I’m starting to feel like you think I’m fragile.”

     “Mel, you are a lot of things. Fragile isn’t one of them. See you in a couple hours. Love ya!” And with that, Riki hung up.

     A few hours. Mel hated how slowly time seemed to crawl since Aris had passed. She had ended up having to go to three different metaphysics shops in the area searching for the damn Ouji board before finding something that didn’t feel like a mystical monopoly. It seemed wrong to try to reach out to her lost lover using something pastel colored, plastic and clearly mass produced. Mel wasn’t sure it would make a difference in the long run, but figured if she was going to do it, she would at least try to do it right. 

  Mel grimaced as she thought that last. Her dad had always said that, at least a version of it. “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.” While the sentiment was true in her opinion, it also was always delivered with an air of arrogance and disapproval and usually directed at something about which Mel had been proud of doing or achieving. He had never been able to just allow her to have a moment of feeling well accomplished. Even now, when she had worked her way to the upper echelons of her company, he was always making comments about ways in which she had “room for improvement”. It was one of the many reasons she rarely spoke to him. Aris had once said that the man was clearly in need of a good therapist. The irony being he was a therapist, if not a good one, a well paid one. His clients loved him. The thing about being a narcissistic asshole is you know how to pretend not to be when it serves your purpose, and her dad was no exception. It was no wonder that Mel avoided therapy like the plague, even though she recognized that as being irrational. She had not worked through enough of her trauma to be able to accept that kind of help because it was that kind of “help” that caused the trauma. Catch twenty-fucking-two, Mel thought. 

     So, instead of a therapist, she had paid over 100.00 for the Ouija board on the table before her. Cheaper than therapy, at least. It was quite lovely actually, though somewhat ominous looking. Mel supposed that there was a reason for that, after all, this was not a child’s toy. 

     The board was folded in on itself, it’s own carrying case. The outside was carved with eyes and faces, some smiling, some crying, some seeming to be frozen mid scream. There was no labeling on the outside, nothing naming it for what it was, just the disturbing and ornately carved illustrations. She hadn’t opened it herself as of yet, though the woman at the shop had opened it to show her what was inside. It had been covered in dust, inside and out, but even under all that and maybe even because of it, Mel had known this to be the one. The lettering inside was also ornately carved, the alphabet, a “yes”, “maybe”, a “no” and something she had never seen before on any of the pop culture references or replicas she had run across. 

     At the bottom of the board, dead center beneath the letters and between “Hello” and “Goodbye,” in a larger font was, “Întuneric”. She assumed it was the maker’s signature or even a form of branding. Mel would research it if it came up during their makeshift seance tonight, but for now she had other priorities. She had gotten candles, white ones she had been told would keep out the negative energy, salt and a special oil to purify the space as well as incense to burn. When she sold her all these items, the woman had also told her to make sure to purify herself before the seance. When Mel asked what she meant, the woman had told her to clear her mind of any darkness, clean her body of any filth and set her intentions before entering the circle she had been instructed to create. To Mel, this translated to mediate, shower and think of Aris. She didn’t have to try so hard to achieve at least two of those things, but meditating was always a challenge. It seemed nearly impossible to get her mind to be still enough to accomplish any kind of meditative state, but she tried. As for showering, she did that on autopilot, and there was rarely, if ever, a moment that she was not thinking about Aris. 

The sudden vibrating of her cell phone made her flinch out of her thoughts and glance at it, annoyed when she saw “Dad” on the screen. She swore she had put his number on the “forward to voicemail” setting, but apparently that had not been the case. She quickly rejected the call, then went into said settings to update them, except it was already set to go to voicemail. How odd, she thought, but technology was nothing if not flawed, so she reminded herself to turn her phone off when Riki arrived just in case. Mel got up and headed to the kitchen for another serving of her infamous peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a pickle on the side. She then headed to the shower, using her lavender soap, shampoo and conditioner, a favorite of Aris’, then sat down and got as comfortable as she could on the floor to attempt meditation. 

She started by listening to the sound of her breathing, focusing on a technique she had learned called box breathing. She breathed in for a count of four in long even breaths, held her breath for a count of four, then released in the four count pattern as evenly as possible. This always made her feel a little light headed at first, she supposed because she was out of practice. She pushed through the initial discomfort and tried to quiet her mind. Her thoughts were racing. Had grief driven her mad? Was she imagining everything that had happened the previous afternoon and this morning? Had she so badly missed her wife that she had created a hallucinatory experience wherein she saw and heard and even felt her wife there with her? Was her dad right about her all along? Was she an actual psychopath, or maybe just in such severe “distress” as Riki had called it, that she needed professional help? Shhhh, mind, shut up, she thought. I’m trying to be serene here. Focus on the breath. Four in, hold, release. Four in, hold, release. But still? What if she had imagined it all, and was now drawing her best friend of fourteen years into her delusion? Was she having a nervous breakdown and if so, why now? Why not as soon as she had lost Aris? Mel gripped her hands a little tighter on her knees, then decided to press them together at her chest, as if in prayer. She tried to ground herself there, in that moment. My legs are crossed, bum on the floor. The floor is hard, my hands are pressed into one another and thumbs are touching my chest. I am breathing, box breathing and that is the only thing that needs my attention at the moment. Four in, hold, release. 

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Mel carried on like this for an hour. She had set a timer to let her know when she had done her due diligence, and every minute of that hour had seemed to be endless, but finally the alarm went off and she blew out a giant sigh of both relief and frustration. She hadn’t achieved serenity, but hell, at least she had made herself sit still for an hour. That in itself was a feat these days. Mel stood and stretched her back and legs, grimacing at the pops all over her body as she did so. She had cleansed herself as best she could both mind and body, now it was time to set her intention as she poured a circle of salt and oil and lit the candles she had bought. 

First she grabbed the board and set it on the desired spot, in the center of the bedroom floor. Mel figured this to be the best space, since it was where all the activity had started. She then grabbed the salt and oil, conjuring an image of Aris in her mind. The way she laughed, mouth in a beautiful smile and eyes crinkled at the corners. The way she used to lock eyes with Mel when they made love, watching her as she climaxed.  Her soft, dextrous hands and the smell of her somehow warm and musky, yet sweet. As Mel poured the salt on her hardwood floor in a circle large enough for the board, her and Riki, she drizzled the oil along the same path and was unaware that she was adding her own additional ingredient. Tears flowed freely down her cheeks and dotted the same path she walked. Only when she was done and had set down the salt and oil containers did she notice her cheeks and chin were damp. She licked her lips and tasted the salt of her tears, a familiar taste now, and went to the bathroom to clean herself up before Riki arrived. Yes, she had seen Mel cry plenty of tears over the years, but that was not the way this was supposed to start. Darkness needed to be kept at bay, at least according to the woman from the shop. And these tears were nothing if not dark. 

A few minutes later, Riki arrived, using her key to come in rather than knocking because that’s what best friends do. By that time, Mel had laid out the candles to be lit around the circle she had poured and had also poured herself a glass of wine and a second for Riki. She rarely drank, which Riki knew, but tonight was definitely a liquid courage type of situation, at least to calm her nerves. The mediation had not been able to do that and Mel had decided not to take any more of the pills she had been prescribed, at least until she figured out what was going on. She was even wary of the Valerian root which had always been just fine in the past, but figured good old Cabernet would be her best bet. She didn’t want to lose any inhibitions as that would be foolish, but having them eased a bit so they could do this would be essential. 

“How did you know I’d want a glass? What if I’m expecting!” Riki put her hand over her chest in mock disbelief.

“Please, the only thing you’re expecting is a compliment. You look lovely, by the way, per usual.” Mel handed Riki the glass and she accepted with a smile and a bow. “Why thank you, good lady, and you look just ravishing!” Mel smiled in return, if somewhat half-heartedly, and they engaged in some small talk as they sipped, ignoring the elephant in the room for a bit until the Cabernet did its job. 

Finally, after about an hour, Mel said, “Are you ready, Rik?” Riki looked at her solemnly and said, “I was hoping you had changed your mind and wanted to just get drunk instead.” Mel just shook her head and set down her empty glass. “My mind is set, ma’am. But you don’t have to do it with me. You can wait out here, finish the wine and I can come out when I am done.” It was Riki’s turn to shake her head. “ Nope. Not alone, I told you.” They stood and headed into the bedroom to light the candles.

As they sat in the circle, Mel breathed in a moment and looked around her. Riki was looking somewhat anxious, despite the wine, and the candle light seemed to intensify the shadows around her face making her seem even more unsettled than she was. Mel wondered if the candles also made her look even more frightened than she was. All the lights were off in the house, their cell phones were off, and it was quiet. Dead quiet. As Mel opened the Ouija board, the creeks of the unfolding wood seemed to echo, another trick of the dark she supposed.  She laid it out flat, then grabbed the triangular piece that she had learned was called a planchette, and set it in the center of the board. She held out her hands to her best friend and Riki clasped them in hers, creating a circle within a circle. Mel sat silent for a moment, not knowing what to say. She didn’t want to come across as some sort of charlatan, calling out in a dramatic fashion, “Hear me spirits! If there is a presence here, make yourself known!” or something like that. But neither did she want to approach it as casually as thirteen year olds in their parents basement, messing around. Finally she spoke.

“I felt you. Yesterday. This morning too. I need to know it’s you. I need to know I’m not crazy.” Riki squeezed her hands at that last. “I have this board so you can talk to me. Tell me why you’re here. What you need. Whatever it is you have to tell me.” With that, Mel gently let go of Riki’s hands, and as discussed, they placed each of their index fingers on the planchette.  Again, Mel was struck with an inability to speak at first. They sat, awkwardly silent for a moment, then Mel said aloud, “Are you here?” 

Mel wasn’t sure what she had expected to happen, probably nothing. She figured in a movie, the planchette would sit still until she asked more and more inflammatory questions, then fly across the room. Or maybe start jerking about on the board, spelling out scary words. But what she did not expect, or even think about as a possibility, was the laugh. Aris’ laugh rang out in the room with them, as if Aris was standing there over them, laughing at their seance in her jovial way, teasingly and lovingly. Mel’s whole body broke out in chills, her hair standing on end, and she looked at Riki whose eyes were wide with shock. “What the fuck?” Riki whispered it as if afraid to speak too loud. At that moment, Mel’s fingers went icy cold where they touched the planchette. She looked down and saw that indeed, frost was forming on its surface, as though it had just been pulled from the freezer or maybe doused in liquid nitrogen. Riki and Mel both jerked their fingers away, as much from the physical discomfort of touching something that frigid as the full blown fear written all over both their faces. As they let go, the planchette did move, slowly, but surely. It came to rest over the word, “Yes.” 

“Mel, I think we should stop. This isn’t right, this shit is fucked” Riki Started to stand. Mel reached out and grabbed her, “I’m scared too, but please. I have to know. I have to talk to her, and what if it’s the two of us being here that is making it so strong? Please, just a few more questions.” Riki stilled and nodded,  but not like she was happy about it. They both placed their hands on their laps as the planchette was still too cold to touch. 

“Why are you here? The planchette began moving almost immediately, but slowly. As it spelled out the letters, Mel wrote them on her notepad she had prepared for just this reason. N-E-E-D-Y-O-U. It stopped moving. “Need me? Need me, why?” Again the planchette began to move of its own volition, this time picking up a bit of speed. “R-U-N-D-A-R-K. Run, dark, what does that mean? Aris? I don’t understand baby, what do you mean?” “S-T-O-P-E-V-I-L, Aris what evil? What’s wrong?” The planchette moved again, quicker than ever, and rested over the word at the bottom. Întuneric. Riki reached out to Mel then, grabbing her hand and stopping her from writing. “Mel, I’m really scared. Please. It’s enough.” Even through her haze of shock, Mel could not stop her heart from hurting at the sight of the fear in her best friend’s eyes. Riki was right. This was only adding to the confusion, and it was sincerely terrifying at that. “I love you, Aris,” Mel said. The planchette did not move this time. The chill in the air lifted and the frost on the planchette started to dissipate right before their eyes.

Both Riki and Mel stood after closing the board up with the planchette safely inside. Riki hustled to the light switch and then they both set about cleaning up. They didn’t talk for a good while during this process, and Mel understood. What they had just seen was impossible. Entirely impossible. Yet it had happened. At least Mel knew it wasn’t her imagination. She wasn’t making it all up, and that was a relief. But what on earth had Aris been trying to tell her? Finally Riki broke the silence. “ Mel, what the fuck is a tonerick or whatever?” 

“Întuneric, and I don’t know. I thought it was just the brand of the board or maybe an artist signature or something.” Riki turned on her phone and searched for the word online. “It looks like it’s Romanian.  It translates to um…fuck.” Riki looked up at Mel with real fear. “What is it, Riki?” 

“It translates to darkness.” 

To Be Continued…

Always

In. And out. In. And out. The precious cycle so many take for granted. Sometimes quieter, sometimes loud. Sometimes slow and relaxed, sometimes frantic. But always in. And out. The woman lay quietly listening to the sound of her own breathing. In. And out. Her fingers were laced together laying on her stomach as it rose and fell. Up. Then down. In. Then out. How absurdly simple., she thought. If there is nothing else in this world I can do, God knows I can do this. I have enough power, she thinks, to do this.  I may be powerless to bring her back, but I can do this. Why couldn’t her strong, beautiful wife done the same? Just keep breathing. Just a little bit longer. Dammit why couldn’t she have just kept fucking breathing?

    The woman, known to her friends and family as Jas, and to others as Jasmyna, felt a kind of numb awe. Her partner of 11 years, her best friend, her confidant, her world….was gone. In a flash, some meth head made a decision that their house was the one he thought looked promising. Leanne was home, just getting ready to head to the doctors office. They had an appointment that morning, and Leanne had forgotten the insurance cards at the house. The damn insurance cards. So instead of heading straight to the clinic to meet Jas, she told her she’d be just few minutes behind. She would just swing by the house and grab the cards, then meet Jas in the office. It would save them time and hassle, and the last thing Leanne wanted was any stress for Jas. It wasn’t good for the baby. The baby….they were supposed to find out the sex of the baby. Such a joyous occasion. 

    So Leanne had stopped at the house, looked through their files, and found the cards. She grabbed her keys, headed to the front door and opened it to the sight of a bald, unwashed, middle aged white man, bent over slightly as he was fumbling to try and pick the lock. The man claimed at the time he was high out of his mind and thought she was going to attack him. Imagine, attacking a man you discover trying to break into your house. Now why on earth would she do that? It didn’t matter that she had every reason to react in a hostile way. It didn’t matter what she thought in that moment, or what he thought either. What mattered…what would always matter was what happened next. He shoved Leanne with all of his might. She was not a small woman, but neither was she prepared for a full force attack as she opened her own damn front door. He lunged in the door after her as she fell backward, slammed the door behind him and without compunction, he stabbed her. See, he had been carrying a knife. For protection, he said. All the dealers in the area wanted to hurt him, he said. Everyone was after him. He was afraid, he said. Well he wasn’t afraid to attack a defenseless woman in her own home. 

    Defenseless…hmm. That word didn’t seem to belong in the same sentence, or even the same universe, as Leanne. She feared no one, and this man was no exception. Even with two stab wounds to her abdomen, and a third in her right lung, she fought. She raked her nails down this man’s face, gouged out his left eye, and even viciously bit chunks out of his shoulder and neck as they fought. She fought. Jas’ wife, her light, she had fought to live. But this man…this demon…had done his damage. He tried to grab the ring off her finger. And even dying, Leanne would not give. He said her grasp was too tight…said he tried to wrench her hand open and it was like stone. So instead he turned, opened the front door and ran, slamming it shut again behind him. Leanne kept her phone always in her bra, something her and Jas always bickered about. God even now, Jas hated how many precious minutes had been wasted bickering. But that day, Leanne took the phone out of her bra, gasping for air and managed to dial 911.

    Not that it had mattered. In. And out. In. And out. Had her breath been ragged? Rattling with the blood running into her lungs? Or had it been quiet with the patience and determination that Leanne was known for? Had she thought she would make it? Or had she known, in those last moments, that she would never again in this life feel Jas in her arms. Never feel their baby kick, see her emerge from the womb. Jas was pretty sure that she had known it was the end. See, Leanne had managed one more message before leaving Jas and their baby behind in this life. Jas had been pulling up to the clinic, feeling the baby kick wildly out of nowhere, when her phone went off. In that moment, her heart dropped. Before she even looked at the phone, Jas had known something was off. She picked up her phone, hands suddenly shaking, and looked at the message. The message from Leanne was simple, 6 letters, two syllables. Nothing jarringly profound at a glance. The message simply said : Always. 

    Always. That was it. But the word seared through Jas’ eyes and straight through to her soul. She had shouted, she couldn’t remember if it was internally, or out loud, but she remembered it being crashingly loud in her heart. “Leanne!!” She reversed out of the parking space and raced to her home, praying feverishly and barely glancing at the traffic around her. She blew through every light and stop sign, the blaring horns a mere whisper compared to her thundering heart. The baby flailed in her wildly as if in protest. As if knowing something was terribly wrong. Jas heard the sirens and saw the lights and her blood ran cold. She pulled up to their house as several EMTs made their way out surrounding a gurney. Jas remembered the white of the sheet. And the red of the blood. So much blood. And the sandy brown curls atop the head of the person laying there. The cocoa colored skin she would know anywhere. “Leanne, baby!” She ran, she screamed, and Leanne turned to her, and just for a second, Jas saw her smile. The smile said so much in that instant. It said I love you. It said I’m sorry. It said you are my world. But most importantly, that smile said goodbye. “NO!!!” But it was too late. Jas saw the light there, in Leanne’s eyes. And she saw it leave. Out. And there was no more in.

    Jas clenched her hands together atop her swollen belly as the baby moved around. The baby. How was she going to raise this baby alone?  She had not been to see the doctor since Leanne. It had been some weeks. But she just couldn’t do it. Leanne was supposed to be there, at her side, when the ultrasound technician let them know if they were to have a boy or a girl. Leanne was supposed to be there to balance out Jas’ wild side. Jas was a free spirit, Leanne had been the structure. Jas was lightning, intense and bright, hot enough to burn you if you got too close, but Leanne was thunder. Steady, deep and undeniable. They had been a storm together that no trouble could withstand. And this baby was the rain. The life born of the storm. Jas could not see how to do this on her own. And there was more.

    Leanne and Jas had never gotten married legally. They had spent 11 years together, but their state did not honor domestic partnership as a common law marriage. In other words, in order to have spousal rights, they would have had to been legally married in the court house. As such, Leanne’s conservative, right wing, bible thumping mother was the next of kin and was already at the hospital where Leanne had been transported. The staff fought for some time to bring her back from the brink, from what Jas understood. But when Jas got to the hospital, Leanne’s mother had already been notified. She was a nurse at the hospital, in Labor and Delivery of all things. And so when Jas arrived, she was denied access, denied information, and finally Leanne’s mother told her Leanne was gone. For good. The words she used were “Take that demon growing in you back wherever you came from and let me mourn my daughter in peace.”

    Jas had fought, physically pushing the woman out of her way, and fighting several orderlies before being escorted out in handcuffs. She was driven by police to the station for questioning about what happened with Leanne, where she was told by the officer that she was lucky they had not pressed charges on her at the hospital. Lucky. Jas was lucky? It was that word that broke her. She spent the next several hours sobbing uncontrollably, inconsolable and absolutely unintelligible in her responses to any questions. She remembered thinking she would die, then feeling a little flutter inside where their baby was growing. It was a horrific cycle, spiraling down into despair, then picking herself up again when she remembered there was a tiny life inside her that had only her in this world. In. And out. Down. And up. So she picked herself up off the floor, literally and figuratively, answered their questions about the stabbing, and listened to them talk about the fact that they caught the bastard that did it. Assault, they kept calling it. Home invasion and assault in the commission of a felony. Such scientific, cold terminology for something that brought her whole world crashing down. 

    Still, Jasmyna had no intention of giving up. She did not know how she would do this herself, but she could not let her baby down. And she could not let Leanne down either. Jas and Leanne had gone back and forth on spirituality. It was one of the sticking points that made them wait so long to try for their baby. Jas was a firm believer in God, and in Jesus, but did not want their child to be raised inside the constraints of a religion that would tell her that her parents were living in sin. Leanne wanted to have their baby raised in church, around Christianity and know the Bible. Jas was afraid their child would experience the hypocrisy that Jas herself had known as a kid, and even as an adult in the church. Finally though, Jas had agreed that if they could find a church home they were accepted in, then their baby would also likely be safe and welcomed there as well. 

    In. And out. Up. And down. Jas was going to have to get up and go soon. She had a meeting with a doula to see if they meshed well. The baby was due in just a few more weeks and Jas had made the decision that she never wanted to see the inside of a hospital again if she could avoid it. No, she was going to have their baby at home. The same home in which Leanne’s life had been taken and Jas’ changed forever, would be the home that welcomed in new life. Jas couldn’t leave it. It was the home they had bought together, built together, and loved together. The baby had a room, there was another guest room, and then their room. All filled with love and a beautiful melding of their styles. No. This was home. And it would stay that way. In. And out. Up. And down. A kick, as if reminding her she had things to do. “I know baby, I know.” Jas got up with a groan and a heavy sigh. She slipped her shoes on with more effort than she was used to and grabbed her purse, heading for the door. As she reached for the knob, there was a knock. Swift and quiet. Jas stopped cold, because as odd as it sounded, that knock…it was just like Leanne. Jas shook herself and opened the door almost angrily, frustrated with whomever it was for giving her such a painful jaunt down memory lane. 

    Jas’ breath caught in her throat. She let her eyes roam along brown skin the color of cocoa with a splash of cinnamon, strong arms, thinner than before, but still well muscled, slim fingers, long and dexterous. Her eyes wandered up, unbelieving, to sandy brown curls, longer than she remembered, and a smile that could brighten the darkest night. Still she could not believe what she was seeing, until she met those eyes. Hazel with just a hint more green than brown, a brown fleck in the left making it seem just a bit darker than the right. Jas‘ mind went blank, her eyes welled up with tears of pain, fear and disbelief. How could she be seeing what she was seeing? Had she lost her mind? Had she died of a broken heart and gone to heaven? If so, where was their baby? Leanne blinked and tears fell from her eyes. “Jasmyna…Baby…” Jas stuttered a moment “Y-you’re real? How? You’re really here?” Leanne closed the distance between them and wrapped her impossible warm arms around Jas. “Always.” She whispered. Jas’ world was slipping away into darkness. But this time it was okay. Leanne was there, and there was nothing in the world that mattered more. If she was dead, or dying, at least she was happy. 

    Pain. So. Much. Pain. Ripping through her center, back to front, Jas came awake screaming. She was wet, she knew that much, she felt it between her legs, soaking her nether regions. “Baby…” She said, then screamed as another spasm caught her. “Oh, God, baby,” she gasped. Instinctively, she tried to reach down to her womb, and realized her hands were being held. “What? Let GO!” She pulled her hands away, achieving nothing. She looked around and realized they were strapped down at her sides. “Leanne!” She screamed. Which was absurd, of course. Leanne was gone. Forever gone. “I’m here baby, shh, I’m here.” “What…what the…” Jas looked to her other side and saw her wife, sitting there, looking composed but worried. And thinner than before. But still so beautiful. Jas was certain there had never been any person more beautiful in that moment. “Its just so you don’t hurt yourself baby, you were fighting hard , but not coherent, and they couldn’t sedate you. Your water broke baby. I’m sorry I should have called first, but when I remembered everything, I just could not wait to feel you.” Remembered everything? “Ah!!” Another contraction ripped through her. Damn, these were painful. Was it supposed to hurt like this. “Breathe, baby. In and out. In. and out” Leanne echoed the very words that Jas had been saying to herself a just earlier that day. Even in this moment, Jas was moved by their connection, how on every level, even when they did not know it, their minds were in sync. And she knew in that moment, she would pull through. Leanne was back. She didn’t know how and she didn’t care, but she was going to bring their baby into this world and make sure to soak up every moment of the second chance she had been given. 

    “They’re coming. Now!” Who? Who was coming? Jas was about to ask when another contraction rocked her from the inside out. The EMT looked at her and said, it’s time to start pushing Jasmyna. Now. Push!” And Jas did. She pushed with all her might. She reached out and Leanne’s hand was there and as the motion of the vehicle swayed side to side, she pushed. She screamed. She pushed and she prayed. She was not sure if it was out loud or in her mind, but she shouted to the Lord. “Please keep us safe, God! Please keep us safe, and pull us through this! PLEASE, GOD!” 

    Then there were flashes. Pain. Leanne’s voice telling her to keep going, keep pushing. Pushing with her whole body. Then the cry of the baby. Their baby. So loud. So clear. And then….another cry joined the first. Another? That…that can’t be right, Jas thought. We are still in the ambulance…aren’t we? Then quiet. 

    A warm familiar kiss on the cheek woke Jas. She opened her eyes and everything rushed back in all at once. The baby! Leanne! My God, Leanne! She turned toward the direction of the kiss, and laid her eyes on her partner. She was still shaken with the thought this would all be a dream and so she asked Leanne, “Is this real?” “Yes, baby. This is as real as it gets.” She stood and kissed her, this time on the lips, gently, but insistent. Jas melted into the kiss, and reveled in it until a quiet “Ahem,’ shook her from her trance.

    She looked up and there was a nurse pushing two…not one…two hospital bassinets. “Sorry. Your babies are hungry. And want to meet their other mama.” The nurse smiled kindly as she came forward.” “Babies? Two? What…” The nurse just shrugged and smiled, as she lifted one baby with a pink beanie on her head, and another with a blue one on …his? “A boy, and a girl,” the nurse said, sensing Jas was overwhelmed. “What a lucky couple you are. “ She smiled once more as she laid the babies in Jas’ open arms and walked out. Jas looked down and fell deeper in love than she ever knew possible. Her son, and her daughter looked up at her with a mystifying adoration and love, and in that moment Jas said to Leanne “We are the luckiest couple alive. Speaking of alive….”  

    Leanne went on to explain that she had survived the stabbing, but had retrograde amnesia when she woke. As such, she could not remember who she was, or where she was or how she had gotten there. Her mother had filled her in on who she was, leaving out the whole lesbian with  a life partner and a baby on the way thing. I guess she had taken it as God’s way of cleansing her daughter of sin. One day, Leanne had been at the physical therapists office, strengthening her body after such an ordeal, and she heard the therapist say something to a patient. The patient responded with one word. 6 Letters. Two syllables. “Always.”  And with that word, the wall between Leanne and her memory came thundering down. Leanne got up without a word, left the physical therapist’s office, and her gaping mother sputtering after her, got into the car and drove straight home to Jas. 

    They named their babies Rain and River, forces of life born of love and strength. They married soon after the babies were a year old. Eventually, Leanne’s mother asked to meet the twins, and they did what no one else in all the years of that woman’s life had been able to do. They showed her that love was unconditional, and more valuable than anything else. Jas watched her children grow, wild yet steady, perfectly imperfect in their balance of humanity and divinity. They knew God, they knew love, and Jasmyna knew true gratitude every day they lived and breathed. In. And out. And in. And out.  

Of Voyeurism and Explorers Ep. 1

Grace was never ashamed of or perturbed by discussions of a sexual nature. Her mother raised her to be very comfortable with regard to such topics. No questions were taboo and no part of her body was something to avoid acquainting herself with. This was in part due to the fact that Grace’s mother was raised by strict Baptist parents who were all about hellfire and brimstone and couldn’t have cared less about arming their children with facts or self confidence. Therefore, Grace was always encouraged to ask any questions that came to mind. This led to some pretty hilariously awkward moments, but her mother always found a way to explain things without making Grace feel silly or abashed. Once, when she was twelve or so, Grace asked her mom, “What does an orrgasm feel like?” Even as an adult, the response she was given seemed to be the best possible way to describe the feeling of a growing pre-teen. “It’s like being tickled, but it feels good, then it builds to an explosion.”

She didn’t quite comprehend the meaning at the time, but three years later, when Grace began experimenting, it became quite clear that the explanation couldn’t have been more accurate. Years went by, and she became more and more acquainted with what she liked and what she didn’t. Her body became a delight any time she was alone and moved to explore. Now, as a woman in her early thirties, she had it down to a science. Chilly room, warm blanket over her, lights off, porn of choice on, some rapid and deft finger play on the clitoris and BOOM! Job done, wash up, go to sleep. The only real variance was the type of porn she felt like watching that particular day or night. She had different partners throughout the years, but always kept her masturbation routine private and unchanged. No one could make her cum the way she could make herself do it, so why change anything? If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, as the saying goes. 

Grace had used toys in the bedroom with different partners and had enjoyed using them on said partners, but never really tried them on herself as she never saw a need. That all changed when she met Jezebel. Yes, Jezebel. Her parents actually named her that, and yes she hated it when people asked. Most times she would just introduce herself as Jezzie and try to avoid the whole conversation. If it came up she would simply say, “My parents wanted to make sure I had no choice but to be a feminist liberal or a homewrecking prostitute,” followed by a very serious stare. That usually shut people up without further discussion. 

The two met on a dating website, cliche indeed. Jezzie had approached her with a joke about the irony of being with a woman named Grace when she had been gifted the name Jezebel. Grace had responded, saying that it would actually be quite poetic that Jezebel found Grace and the two hit it off. They began to get to know one another in a quite typical fashion at first, feeling one another out a little at a time. They were polar opposites not only in name, but in appearance as well. Both women were quite voluptuous, though Jezzie had a habit of wearing baggier clothing than Grace. Grace was pale in the winter and a bit tan in the summer, depending on how much time she was able to spend outdoors. She had hair the color of honey, which shimmered in the sunlight. Jezzie had lovely ebony skin, the color of melted dark chocolate, and dark hair that was black as night and cut close to her scalp. It seemed to always be freshly lined and not a hair out of place, at least in photos and video chat. 

Despite the differences on the surface, the two had much in common. They shared a love for horror movies, books of all kinds and music of most genres. They talked throughout the day and night whenever they had a spare moment. Grace made a considerable effort to keep the conversations away from sexual topics for a while, explaining that she wanted something based on more than just sex. Jezzie shared the sentiment, but as time went on it became increasingly difficult to avoid the topic. Their connection was fire, and Grace simply could not stop her mind from heading in that direction.She wondered what it would feel like to touch Jezzie. How she would kiss, what she would sound like when she moaned her name, what she would smell like, how she would taste. But still, Grace tried to keep her mind focused on anything else, which became exponentially more difficult the day that Jezzie asked her in a very blunt message, “How do you like to cum?”

Grace was floored at the message, mainly because it seemed to come out of left field. Even still, she felt her center stir instantly in response to the question, thrumming to life like a tiny heartbeat between her legs. She took a deep breath and considered the question. How did she like to cum? Grace had never really considered the specifics, and didn’t want to seem inexperienced, so she responded rather coyly.

“Hard.”

Jezzie replied, “ So are you rough with yourself?”

Grace didn’t know how to answer these specific questions. She had always been asked what she liked in the bedroom with a partner or how she liked to be fucked. No one had ever asked her about how she pleased herself. She gave it some thought and then decided to be honest. “I haven’t really given it much thought. It depends on my mood I guess, but for the most part I have had the same routine since forever. Sort of an orgasm formula for myself, in and out and on to the next order of business.”

“So do you penetrate yourself then, or just stroke your clit?”

Now Grace was beginning to squirm in her seat. Given that she was at work in her desk chair and in relatively plain view of her fellow employees, she bit her lip and forced herself to be still and quiet as her clit began to swell. It wasn’t the thought of pleasuring herself that was turning her on. It was the fact that Jezzie had now made it clear she had at least some sexual thoughts about Grace. Her interest was unbearably arousing and this was so not the time to be aroused. Still, Grace couldn’t bring herself to change the subject. Not yet.

“No, I don’t penetrate myself, I just rub my clit. Slowly at first because it is so sensitive to touch. Then faster and faster until it’s almost a vibration. When I climax I slow down again, but then have to take my finger away because it gets too intense.”

The three little dots indicating Jezzie was typing were mocking Grace as she sat staring at her phone, not at all paying attention to the work on her desk. She was clenching her thighs and at the very same time she was nearly biting her nails in anxiety. Had she given too much? Too little? Finally a message popped up on her phone.

“Almost a vibration? Finger? As in one finger? So, do you ever use any toys?”

Grace felt her face get hot and knew it must be glowing red. All at once she felt juvenile, like a schoolgirl with a crush on her teacher. She had never had someone make her feel this way, but somehow the embarrassment seemed to excite her even more. Her pussy was now soaking through her lace panties and dampening the skirt she was wearing. She squirmed again, rubbing her clit against that wetness and let a small whimper escape her lips before she remembered her surroundings. 

“Well, no,” Grace typed. “I have never used toys on myself, or had them used on me actually…though I have used them on others, I have always just gotten off from skin on skin. But can we pin the subject please? I’m at work and, well…there’s a bit of a situation happening.”

Jezzie’s reply was lightning quick. “A situation? Because of the conversation? What situation? And how would changing the subject help?”

Grace couldn’t figure out if Jezzie was being devilish or honestly didn’t know the effect she was having, but either way the pulse between her thighs was only growing faster and more insistent. She was going to wind up soaking her chair if she wasn’t careful. “Well, Jezzie, to be blunt, my panties are wet and I am wearing a very thin skirt and can’t keep from squirming. I’m sorry if this is too much information, but you asked.” 

“Perfect,” Jezzie responded. “That’s exactly how I want you. Now follow my instructions. When you finish reading this message, I want you to put your phone on vibrate, if it’s not already. The setting where the vibration pulses as the phone rings. Then I want you to sit right there at your desk, place your phone tight up against that wetness and sit on it as I call you over and over. Do not get up, do not remove the phone and do not make a sound. You’re surrounded by people, so act normal. Do your job, and let me make you cum. Hard. You can pick up the phone when I stop calling. You have 20 seconds. Get comfortable, Grace. XOXO”

Without thinking too much, Grace turned on the requested setting and discreetly placed her phone where instructed. There was a part of her that was aghast and protesting furiously, but her aching wetness and pounding heart overruled any thought of just pretending to follow directions. Just as she got comfortable, her phone started to vibrate with a phone call. It was so strong and so sudden she let out a gasp of surprise before she could stop herself. She looked around her and saw a few glances her way, but no undue interest. She pulled away a little and then remembered she also was instructed not to get up. She bit her lip again, harder this time, and breathed deeply, trying to look like she was focused on work. It felt so good! As the pulse continued, she began to grind slowly into it. She thought about the fact that Jezzie was the one doing it to her, calling over and over, and that Jezzie knew she was doing it, and she got hot all over. Her blood was boiling in ecstasy, yet Grace could only whimper ever so quietly and press harder down into the vibration that seemed to be taking over her body. The pressure built in her and her breathing quickened. She worked to keep it even and quiet and her body begged her to buck wildly as she gripped the arms of her chair, digging her nails in and battling to keep control of herself. People would see! They were sure to know what she was doing. Still, the buzzing continued, coaxing and pushing her until finally she gasped once more and held her breath to keep from screaming as she climaxed in her chair. The vibration kept going until she thought she would have to leap to her feet to keep from moaning out loud, but her legs were too weak and her body had a mind of its own. She squirmed and centered the phone squarely on her most sensitive part and pushed down. Grace tasted blood as she bit down on her bottom lip and forced herself to feel every moment until ecstasy became pain. Just as she was losing the last bit of control she had, the buzzing finally stopped. Her whole body sagged as she let out a sigh of relief and satisfaction.

Grace stood, wobbly at first, then grabbed her phone and headed to the restroom to try to clean up. As she walked, she messaged Jezzie. “Wow. Not to sound lame, but that was incredible”

“You’re welcome,” Jezzie replied. “You should know that as I was calling you, I was using my toy as well. I am going to send you a shopping list. There are some toys you need to pick up. Because the next time you come, sweetheart, I’m going to be watching it happen.” 

Ashes: The Beginning

Photo by Juan C. Palacios on Pexels.com

 It’s incredible how no matter what tragedy or disaster strikes a person’s life, they are still surrounded by people going about life as if nothing happened.  Of course you have the people in your immediate circle who were, depending on the circumstance, either directly or indirectly affected by it. But as she sat in the laundromat waiting for her clothes to dry, Mel marveled at everyone milling around unaffected and in their own little bubble of nonchalance,  preoccupied with folding sheets, staring at their phones, laughing with one another or just daydreaming while the dryers tumbled and the world just kept on spinning.  It was a cold thing, a lonely thing, to be crippled by such a great loss as she had and yet still be expected to wash-and-wear clean clothes, go to work, feed herself semi-regularly and be a person as if any of it mattered.  As if she wasn’t going home to an empty house, to lay in an otherwise empty bed and try desperately to get her mind to be that empty so she could at least find shelter from the storm of her grief in slumber. Most nights Mel lay in bed tossing and turning instead, drowning in a torrent of thoughts and emotions that came in waves so fast and chaotic she felt sure she would go mad. 

Her phone buzzed on the table, rudely jerking her away from her thoughts. She glanced down at the screen and was aggravated to see the message that popped up from her dad. “Melanie, I know you have seen my calls, “ it read. No more than thirty seconds passed before it buzzed again and another message came through to follow, as she knew it would. “I get that you are going through a rough time, but that’s no excuse to put me through this. You are making your old man worry about you and that is not fair.” This was followed by one last message, curt and pointed to drive home the point of the passive aggressive guilt trip, “You’re not the only person to have ever experienced grief. Call me.” Mel sighed and shook her head, swiping the messages off her screen. It had been a long time, longer than she cared to think about really, since Mel was moved by her fathers incessant need to make everything about him and to minimize anything she may be feeling. He had also ceased to be able to make her feel guilty or obligated to him in any way, but it did not stop him from trying. She could count on one hand the number of times he had expressed any actual empathy or compassion towards her and she didn’t even need the whole hand for it. She pocketed her phone as she stood, heading to the dryer, snagged her clothes quickly, not bothering to fold them as she hung all her clothes anyways, and headed back to her house. She couldn’t really think of it as home anymore, not now that Aris was gone.

Hanging the clothes came as naturally as breathing, Mel did it on autopilot as soon as she got home. Likewise for making what passed for dinner these days, good old PB&J and a pickle spear. Aris used to laugh at her for that one. “You eat like a 7 year old,” she used to say, smiling teasingly. Mel would laugh along with her and acknowledge this to be true saying, “That’s what keeps me young!” She felt now as if she would never laugh that way again. All the laughter had gone out of her since Aris had…gone. She couldn’t even think the other word for it. It was too brutal, too honest and just didn’t seem to belong in the same thoughts as any memory including Aris. She was so bright, full to bursting with life and joy and laughter. To know that light had been extinguished, snuffed out by a virus people were comparing to a common cold, or the flu was far too painful to process at this point. Mel saw a clear droplet fall to her plate before she noticed the hot tears that were streaming from her eyes and down her face. It was the only way the tears seemed to come anymore. Silent and without fanfare, like her pain was literally overflowing from her in rivulets that snuck past the defenses she had put in place to help her get through the day. It had been a month.

 Four solid weeks since she had laid Aris to rest. That had been its own hell, having to make the arrangements for her wife. They had talked about final arrangements only in passing before. Once the virus had set in, they talked further, but it had all happened so fast.Mel had not wanted to talk about it, reassuring her wife that she would pull through. People were surviving this. And with this thought, Mel’s mind and heart transitioned into the familiar anger at the injustice of it all. Aris was young, only in her mid-thirties for heaven’s sake, and she was healthy. She was careful about what she ate, exercised regularly and had regular checkups to make sure everything was running like a well oiled ship. Yet she was..gone. Ashes. Ashes on the fucking mantle instead of a warm, bright, beautiful woman with a heart of gold and laughter that just wouldn’t quit. Except it had. It had quit. And now it was gone forever. Mel hung her head and willed her thoughts to quiet.  It was too much. She closed her eyes, and as she did she heard the impossible. From their bedroom, Aris’ laugh rang through the house.

Photo by Raphael Brasileiro on Pexels.com

Mel stood bolt upright, nearly knocking her plate to the floor. She wiped furiously at her tears and absurdly called, “Babe?” There was, of course, no answer. Still…she was sure she had heard it.  Mel walked towards the bedroom, trembling as chills broke out all over her body. She wrapped her arms around herself and glanced at the thermostat as she walked down the hallway. It was set at the normal seventy three degrees, nothing unusual there. Yet, Mel was freezing cold down to her toes. She kept walking toward the bedroom, suddenly overcome with an absolute certainty that she would round the corner and see her beautiful wife standing there, made whole by some unfathomable miracle. No one else laughed like that. It had to be her, but yet it couldn’t be. Mel heard hangers rattling against one another in the closet, as if someone was shuffling them around. “What the fuck,” she whispered as she padded the last few steps to her bedroom door. She was stuck it seemed, unable to round the corner into the room, terrified that she would see Aris there inexplicably alive and at the same time terrified she wouldn’t see her there and the illusion would be shattered, breaking her heart again. 

The laugh rang out again, this time louder as if just a few feet from where Mel stood, and this time she was certain. Aris was in there! Mel hurried around the corner, shouting “Aris!” and nearly doubled over from the shock as she stepped into their room. There, before her as plain as day, was an empty bedroom. No Aris to be seen, nor heard. Mel looked frantically in the closet and then checked the bathroom. She ran through the whole house, checking the linen closet and even outside in the yard and around the sides of the house. She must have looked like a madwoman and maybe she was. But she would stake her life, or what was left of it, on the fact that Aris had been in that house with her, impossible as it was. Finally, Mel went back inside, sat down on her couch, despondent, placed her head in her hands and wept in earnest. 

Later, when all the tears had been shed for the moment and Mel had been able to establish some semblance of calm, she reflected on the incident. She considered the fact that she hadn’t been sleeping well, had been bottling up all her emotions as best she could and the fact that grief had been known to drive people into temporary insanity. Mel didn’t feel insane though. She felt drained to the point of exhaustion, heartbroken and lonely, but she also felt completely lucid and cognizant of her surroundings. Mel was not a religious woman, but she was spiritual and she often talked to Aris in her prayers as if she were there to hear. Sometimes, especially when the wind blew against her skin, Mel could even feel her there. But this? No, this was different. She had known with unshakeable certainty what she was hearing and that she felt a Presence there, with a capital P. Mel shivered at the memory and decided it was time for some rest, whether her mind wanted to allow it or not. She took some of the sleep meds her doctor had prescribed and paired it with three capsules of valerian root, a natural sleep aid, as well. Within an hour she began to feel dreamy, and as she laid in bed, Mel gave herself over to the feeling, letting the medicine do its job. 

Soft. Warm. Quiet. Mel woke surrounded by these sensations and smiled, reaching out to pull herself closer against Aris and soak up that warmth. She radiated heat in a way that seemed almost to be supernatural. Mel curled her body against the familiar curve of Aris’ behind, pressing her breasts into her back and burying her face in her hair. Aris always smelled of lavender. It was her favorite scent, and Mel took a deep breath in. But what she smelled was not lavender. Instead her nose filled with the scent of a freshly struck match. It nearly singed her nose hairs as she breathed in and she began to sputter and cough. She took another breath in, this time through her mouth and some of Aris’ hair fell into her open mouth, making her gag on it and jerk upright. “Babe!” Mel yelled it, trying to figure out what in the world was going on. But Aris just layed there, unmoving. Mel grabbed her by the shoulder, meaning to give her a shake, but watched in terror as her hand went directly in to Aris, falling through her like sand. No, not sand, Mel thought. Ashes. Aris is ashes.She leapt from the sheets, running to the light and flipping it on before whirling around to see what was laying in her bed that she had so willingly wrapped herself around in her half slumber. What had been so impossibly warm, and yet so foul smelling. 

Mel’s bed was empty. Neither Aris, a shell of Aris or any other being was laying there. Mel knew it must have been a dream, but even as she told herself this, she thought back on the events of the previous day. The Presence she had heard and felt. She made up her mind then and there that she was going to try to communicate with whatever it was. If it was her own imagination, maybe it would help her process the pain she wasn’t dealing with. If it was Aris, maybe she could get the closure she was lacking and fill the empty hole in her heart. It didn’t occur to Mel that perhaps it was something else entirely. Something that wanted in through the hole that the loss of Aris had made. Something that knew how to pretend to be what it wasn’t. Mel got dressed and headed out to the local mystic shop. She could only think of one way she could get clear answers from the Presence in her home, and though she was well aware most people warned against it and others would think her silly, she had every intention of coming home with one that day. Mel went in search of a Ouija board. “After all,” she thought, “The worst has already happened.”

…To Be Continued

Annette

Annette’s mother had always told her, “Nettie, you have to be specific when you  tell God what you want. After all, you ask and you shall receive. And if you aren’t specific, you may end up getting more than you bargained for. Or, heaven forbid, less.” As a child, Annette never questioned her mother. Quite the opposite actually. Annette absorbed every word with fervent enthusiasm and tried in every way she could to emulate Gwyndolyn Parsons, mother extraordinaire. 

Annette remembered looking at her mother, Gwyn, and thinking to herself if she grew up to be just like her, she’d be the happiest girl alive. Gwyndolyn was tall, statuesque, slender but curvaceous in all the ways a woman was supposed to be according to the fashion magazines Annette would sometimes peruse at the beauty parlor. Whenever Gwendolyn entered a room, all the men stood, and if Gwendolyn’s husband Roger was not there, those same men stared. No, not stared exactly, no one wanted to offend the lovely Mrs. Parsons, but certainly they took more than their share of long, lingering glances.  Yes, Mrs. Gwyndolyn Adrianne Parsons was a force to be reckoned with in those days. Powerful, yet sweet, beautiful and sensual, yet never crude, wealthy but never pompous, charitable, kind, and a loving wife and mother. She was always smiling, always put together, prim and proper without being uptight. Her husband, Roger, was a well renowned and respected lawyer who rarely lost a case, and did a good amount of pro-bono work to boot. The Parsons’ had one daughter, Annette Evelynn Parsons, and everyone knew she would grow up to be something great. With two exceptional parents such as hers, how could she not? 

Annette’s childhood memories were full of loving glances between her parents, smiles, hugs, kisses, laughter, chatter, and most of all music. Such sweet music. As if being lovely, affluent, kind, and well liked in the community were not enough, Gwyndolyn was also what everyone referred to as a gifted pianist. She would play at every gathering, large or small, for friends, family, her husband’s colleagues and neighbors. Sometimes a lucky stranger would be walking by and hear the sound of her skillful playing wafting through the air out an open window or a cracked door. Often these strangers would disregard what ever errand had them out and about, and come to the door asking who was playing and if they might listen just a bit longer. It was the 1950’s and people were not nearly as wary of strangers as they would become in the coming decades. Not nearly as wary of anyone, really. And so, of course, the ever congenial Mrs. Parsons would invite the strangers in, offer them a glass of lemonade and play just long enough to be polite, but never long enough to elicit rumors of impropriety amongst the community. If the stranger was someone who had “fallen on hard times” as her mother used to call it, Gwyn would make them a sack lunch, sending them away with music in their ears and enough food to fill their belly at least once on their journey to wherever they were headed. 

“Oh Mom…I wish you were here,” Annette sighed as she folded another pair of her husband’s jeans. 

“What’s that Annie?” Annette cringed at the nickname her husband shouted across the house. She had told Charles more times than she could count that she hated being called Annie. She had corrected him every single time he used it for the first year of what passed for their courtship. Still he had kept using it, telling her it would grow on her, and he liked the way it sounded. Annette thought he didn’t really care whether it grew on her or not. In fact, she was pretty sure he hoped it never did. He liked that sort of thing, “getting her goat” he called it. He enjoyed irritating her, sometimes to the point of tears. He found it amusing. Or maybe it made him feel powerful. As Annette sat folding laundry she shrugged internally. It really didn’t matter why he did what he did. He just did, and Annette had stopped questioning it after about their third year of marriage. Now they were approaching their seven year anniversary. Seven years? My God, had it really been seven years? “Nothing, Charlie, just talking to myself,” Annette shouted back, realizing she had not responded to her husband’s half-interested inquiry. She knew half interest would become full interest if she were quiet for too long. Then he would get up and come in to see what she was up to. And she was too tired to pretend right now. After all, that’s what it was at this point. A giant game of pretend.

She pretended to smile, to laugh at his jokes, to enjoy his incessant gyrating when he wanted to copulate, which was less and less often, Thank God. She pretended to enjoy taking care of him, washing his clothes, picking up after him, cleaning the house, dressing up to go with him to this work event or that conference or this dinner party. She pretended to be a happy housewife with no cares in the world more profound than maintaining a clean house, a good home cooked menu for her husband, and oh, making sure she always looked good for him while doing it. Put on a show, Annette, she told herself. A good show. Fake it until you make it. God knew she had been faking it in more than just the bedroom for quite some time now. 

Still, he provided a roof over her head and all the comforts of home. Something he never failed to remind her of when she expressed  any malcontent whatsoever. And she was grateful. She knew there were women that were much worse off. Women who had to lie about bruises on a daily, call in to work when their husbands got too rough, explain how they ran into a door and then fell down some stairs later that same week. Yes, things could be worse, Annette reminded herself.  But, oh, how she wished they were better. If only she had been more like Gwyndolyn. 

Annette folded the last pair of jeans and stood up to put them away. “Son of a BITCH!” She yelled without thinking as her pinky toe stubbed the leg of the chair she had been sitting in. God, but the little things always hurt the worst! Annette set the jeans down on the desk at which she had been folding and leaned over examining her injured toe. It was an angry red color already and would probably bruise, but wasn’t seriously damaged. Still, it stung like crazy. “Sonofabitch.” She repeated it, this time softly. It felt good, albeit out of character. She never cursed, at least not out loud. It wasn’t lady like. But all of a sudden, it felt like exactly what she should be doing. “Son. Of. A. Bitch.” Quiet again, but with more feeling. Oh yes, she was enjoying this. Immensely. That sting in her toe was fading with every word.   She laughed, “Son of a bitch! HA!! Son of a bitch!” She tried a sing song version of it, “Sooonnn of aaaaa biiiitch!” She giggled like a schoolgirl. 

“Annie? What’s the deal?” Charles stood in the doorway behind her. She could picture the look on his face before she even turned around. Mock concern, barely concealing his irritation and judgmental thoughts flickering behind his eyes. Wondering why did he marry such an inconvenience. All at once, it was more than Annette could bear. She looked at his neatly folded jeans laying next to his neatly folded socks sitting atop his neatly folded undershirts and his neatly folded tighty-damn-whities and she lost it. She reached out and knocked all the freshly folded laundry to the floor with a swipe of one hand as she whirled around to face her pretend husband. She kicked one of the pairs of socks in his direction with  a careless flick of her foot, noticing the pain there was completely gone now. She laughed again, loud this time, and then in a voice so hysterical she barely recognized it as her own she shouted, “My name is ANNETTE! A-N-N-E-T-T-E, you SONOFABITCH!!!!!” She pushed past him, his jaw slack with awe as he sputtered in disbelief. She wasn’t sure what he was saying, if he was really saying anything at all. She grabbed her purse, her keys, put on her shoes, left her phone and was gone before he had a chance to relearn how to use words. 

Annette was giddy. Absolutely giddy. That was the only word she could think of that could describe the  giggles, the ecstatic shaking, the antsy feeling that kept her switching positions as she drove, and fidgeting about in the car, adjusting the mirrors that didn’t need to be adjusted, changing the temperature on the car thermostat, changing lanes just to be in a different one. She had never, in all of her years, been so brash, so heedless of consequences. She knew, logically, that what she was doing would have a reverberating effect on her life. But she couldn’t bring herself to regret it. In fact, she was happy. Downright gleeful, truth be told. She didn’t know where she was headed, but she knew one thing. She wasn’t headed back home. Home? No, that was wrong. Charles always said he provided her a home, calling her a homemaker. But the truth is, that house had never felt like home.  No matter how she had tried, decorating, cooking, inviting friends over. She had even convinced Charles to let her get a piano. She was nowhere near as talented as her mother had been, but she had hoped that the sounds of a piano being played would at least make her feel at home. Still, she never did. Even when she and Charles decided it was time to start trying for a baby. When they picked out nursery colors and a crib, and baby toys, when they went to fertility doctors to move the process along, even when they were expecting…at no point did any of this make her feel at home. And when she lost the first pregnancy, then the second, then refused to try a third time, things only got worse. Charles still wanted to keep up appearances, and of course divorce was not part of the appearance he was looking for, so he relented. He stopped pressuring her to keep trying, and let her have her birth control pills in peace. But really, it was all over before it even began if she was being honest. Theirs was a marriage of convenience, she the lovely trophy wife, and he the handsome entrepreneur with a need for arm candy that was more than just good looks, but the good looks had to come first. So she looked good. Great actually. She grew up with a figure like her mother’s, and hair long and flowing, the color of dark chocolate. Her eyes were a piercing green with flecks of blue throughout. Her skin was pale in the winter, darkened just a bit with the summer sun, but never really tanned. 

Soon after they married, Charles started taking her to the salon, telling them to lighten her hair to a pale blonde. It was less harsh, he said. Then he started telling her to visit the tanning salon. He tried to get her to get spray tanned, but on this she was firm. They always came out looking orange, and while Annette was far from vain, she had no desire to look like an oompa loompa. Annette looked in the mirror at her hair as she drove. Suddenly she hated the bleach blonde locks she saw before her. So commonplace, dyed to look just like everyone else. And Annette decided at that moment, she was damn well NOT going to spend her life living like everyone else. Maybe things had worked like that for Gwyn, but Annette was not her mother. She pulled off at the first drug store she saw, nearly ran inside, bought a box dye as close to her natural color as she could find and ducked into their restroom. She spent the next hour in there, ignoring the judgmental looks from other patrons as they came and went.   She rinsed for what seemed like ages, then took her shirt and toweled her hair as dry as possible. 

Annette flipped her hair back and met the gaze in the mirror of a woman she didn’t even recognize. It wasn’t just the hair color, it was the eyes, the skin, the smile on her face. Her eyes were glowing in a way she had never seen. They sparkled like twin flames of blueish green fire. Her skin was luminous, as if something inside her had been electrified. And her smile was that of a woman who was secure in herself, happy to be alive, and looking for her next adventure. She looked at herself a moment longer, taking it all in. Feeling the joy of falling in love with herself. Feeling free. She was unsure of what exactly lay ahead, but in that moment she knew she would never again compromise her own happiness, her own joy, or her inner light. She would be specific in what she wanted, and settle for nothing less. She looked in the mirror, watching herself as she stood up straight and smiled brighter, enjoying the twinkle in her eye. “Son of a bitch!” she laughed. She left that drug store bathroom, and as she walked out the door, she left behind the mask she wore for so long, the burden of everyone else’s expectations, and the shame she had felt for ages in not living up to the woman her mother had been. She got into her car and shut the door, still smiling, feeling like she could fly. She glanced in the mirror once more and gasped. For just a moment, as she glimpsed her reflection, she swore she saw the smiling, shimmering eyes of her mother staring back at her. Love, Annette thought to herself. Pure, unadulterated love. That’s what I saw in her eyes for me. And here it is…staring back at me. “Wow,” Annette said out loud. “Let’s go,” She said to no one in particular, and began the next chapter in a journey all her own.