Homecoming

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An almost volcanic heat rose from the dark green lake in heavy, steaming clouds, while the sun, smoky and dim, lent the day a faded, dusky cast. Andrea peered up at the thick, leathery trees, which clung to the perimeter of the water like towering ancient sentries, then back at the squat, vine-encrusted hut where she and her husband, Zemon, had lived for the past seven years.

A strange world, with little that resembled the home she’d grown up in. But Zemon was a native, and she’d decided to follow him back. It had been a difficult adjustment, and even now, she couldn’t say she loved this world. The days were intolerably hot, the locals could be private and standoffish, and while beautiful, the alien plants and wildlife, along with the brilliant emerald green oceans that covered ninety-eight percent of the planet’s surface, were irreconcilably different from her world of bright sun and blue skies.

But today, things were going to change. Today, they were going to pass through the Iron Gate and move back home to her family.

Ready, Andrea?

Her husband’s words unfurled inside her mind without sound. After all these years, the experience still sent a shuddering thrill across her body.

Soon, dear.

He came up behind her, his eyes reflecting back the dim, uneven light from above, and encompassed her in his lithe, silvery arms. She could sense his sadness. He tried to mask it, but she knew him too well, and it was impossible for him to be anything but himself with her.

Andrea reached out to give his hand a gentle squeeze.

It’ll be all right. We’ll only be gone a few years, and then you’ll be home again.

It was the compromise they’d struck the day they agreed to spend the rest of their lives together. Seven years in his world, followed by seven years in hers.

Zemon nodded.

A curious combination of anticipation and guilt fluttered in her chest as she conjured a mental image of her hometown in Iowa. She thought of her parents, her grandmother, her nieces and nephews, all living together under a single roof. She thought of fresh baked bread, biscuits and pie. Most of all, she thought of endless corn fields and navy blue skies, all priceless treasures of an ordinary life she hadn’t appreciated until after she’d gone away.

Now I know how you felt when you gave up part of your life for me.

At least there’ll be cornbread, she replied.

Zemon’s eyes lit up, a bright yellow rush of avaricious desire.

Yes, cornbread.

And grits.

Yes, he agreed. And grits.

Once more, Andrea would be the native and Zemon would be the foreigner. But he loved her as much as she loved him, and through that love, they would forge a path through the next seven years.

Come.

They clasped hands, and together they set off for the Iron Gate.

Totem, Part 5

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Deep inside the dappled light of a tall oak tree, the six blackbirds kept watch. They’d followed the girl to this location, a two-story house in the suburbs, and had spent the rest of the afternoon contemplating how best to proceed. When they’d first arrived, the sun had still been bright overhead. Now it was a dull, burnished copper, slipping fast beneath the roofs of the other houses.

She hasn’t been outside since she got home, remarked one, a slim creature who in another life had gone by the name of Zane. A boring one, she. He took a moment to preen himself with his beak.

She’s troubled. That from Rashidi, their leader. You saw the way she fled from us.

A hopeless cause, argued Kasim, another of the six. Millennia of endless flight, just for it to end like this.

Not hopeless, said Jahi. He’d been so quiet that, until now, they’d forgotten he was there. His voice was elegant, stately, bellying his many years of experience as a diplomat. No cause is hopeless as long as one maintains hope.

A worthless platitude, spat Kasim.

And one, said Rashidi, that I happen to believe is true.

Well, barked Kasim. What do you think, Chibale?

I think, came the creature’s reply, that we should stop arguing and focus on the girl.

He’s right. Rashidi addressed them each in turn. Let us consider the task at hand.

Kasim offered his bitterest telepathic grumble, but did not reply.

Azibo, the last of their number, was staring into the sky and didnt say a word. The youngest of the six, he’d only been a teenager when he was changed. He rarely spoke and spent much of his time peering into the endless world with longing. Rashidi felt for him, for he also felt the weight of his own punishment and could only guess how much more it must affect the boy.

An Egyptian magician had set it all into motion over two thousand years ago. A man history no longer remembered, yet a man who’d once been the most powerful person in the known world, for although he was mighty in deed and strength, he preferred to rule from a distance.

“Better to be the power behind the throne,” the cruel old man proclaimed when Rashidi was still his most favored servant. “Let the Pharaoh enjoy his pomp and ceremony. True power lies in obscurity.”

And the man had been wise, for he’d sat on his throne for centuries, until a plan set in motion by Rashidi and the others almost toppled him.

After their failed mutiny and subsequent transformation, they’d taken to the skies. They dwelled among the Babylonians and the Assyrians, then traveled Northeast into Persia, then farther East still toward the Huns and the Mongols. When enough time had passed to hope their master had forgotten them, they circled back in search of the bracelet, wishing to destroy it and undo the spell that bound them.

But when they’d returned, they’d found their old master’s estate in ruins, neither he nor the bracelet to be found. Farther West, a vague interior sense whispered. Farther West is where you’ll find the bracelet. So they took to the skies once more, wandering the world in a futile search, that sense of the bracelet’s proximity moving almost as fast as they themselves moved, until finally it drew them toward the North American continent on the other side of the world.

Now, Rashidi began to pace along the tree branch. We must find a way to communicate with her.

We could get into the house ourselves, offered Chibale. Sneak in through an open window when no one’s watching.

And then what? scoffed Kasim. How do we break the bracelet? In case you haven’t noticed, we’re birds. Unless they make hammers and chisels for our delicate size and shape.

Kasim, said Rashidi, be calm.

He’s right though. Jahi jumped in once more. We’ll need her help.

Azibo? Rashidi pulled up behind him. What do you think?

No reply.

Azibo? Rashidi came toward him and tapped him with his beak.

With agonizing slowness, the boy finally turned. But his eyes were blank, as if he had no idea where he was.

Help us. If Azibo’s words had come out as sound, they would have been the faintest of whispers.

The others were all looking at him now. He’d always been quiet, but never this strange.

Help who, Azibo? Once more Rashidi tapped him with his beak.

Please, help us.

Who’s he talking to? asked Kasim, all his characteristic bitterness and sarcasm gone.

I don’t know, Rashidi answered. Azibo, who are you talking to? What’s wrong?

And then, just like that, the youth’s eyes blazed to life. Startled, he tottered back almost to the edge of the branch.

Azibo! What’s wrong?

The boy’s head twittered, and he stepped to the side, ruffling his jet black feathers.

I felt the girl.

What do you mean? Chibale.

A pause while Azibo collected his thoughts. I don’t know. I was gazing into the sky, daydreaming. Then I was a wizard, and a girl came to seek my wisdom. A different girl, yet the same.

Azibo shook his head.

I was in her head, I think, like we were sharing a dream. I asked her for help, and I could feel that she understood me. Then she was gone, and I was back here with you—

Again, Azibo shook his head.

How can this be? asked Rashidi. I’ve never heard of such a thing.

They began to argue. Rashidi and Chibale asserted that Azibo should rest, while Zane and Kasim insisted he’d gone mad. Finally, Jahi broke in.

I have.

Reduced to silence, they all turned to face him at once, an unspoken question burning in their eyes like hot, black stars.

I don’t think he’s mad, continued Jahi, and I don’t think he was dreaming. Azibo, this has happened before, hasn’t it?

The boy didn’t answer, only put his head down and refused to meet Jahi’s eyes.

Azibo?

Still no reply.

It’s okay, Azibo. The master is dead. He can’t hurt you now.

Still the boy hesitated, until at last Jahi sidled over and gave him a gentle nudge with his beak.

You can tell us, Azibo. You’re among friends.

After more prodding, the boy looked up and said, maybe.

Jahi nodded, while the others looked at both of them aghast.

I thought so. You hid yourself well. The master would have killed you if he’d known.

Would one of you please explain what’s going on? It was the first time in centuries that any of them could remember Rashidi losing his patience.

And with Azibo’s silent assent, Jahi told them a story.

Part 6 will be posted on April 18.

I Saw Her Again

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The line we draw between reality and fantasy is a fragile thing, a brittle house of glass that requires only one small pebble, one hairline crack, to fall shattering to the ground.

I saw her again.

I saw her again, and my psyche, like our metaphorical house of glass, burst into a million sparkling pieces.

I was seven when I watched her die, and I was thirty when I spied her outside in the pouring rain, holding an umbrella in her right hand, along with a smoldering cigarette in her left.

I can already hear what you’re going to say next. How do I know she was the same person? People look like other people all the time. And if not for what happened next, I’d say you were right.

The world, dreary and gray, took on a hollow, distant cast. I thought, surely, I must be dreaming. I wanted to move on, wanted to shy away from the uncanny encounter before I could be undone. But in such mad and dreamlike moments, we do odd things—dangerous things we wouldn’t dare attempt by the ordinary light of day.

I pulled up beside her, not minding the cold and the damp and the pelting rain, and I said, “Excuse me, don’t I know you from someplace?”

In the instant before she turned, I thought, This is all a misunderstanding. The crawling goosebumps will pass, and when I see for myself that she isn’t the same person, that it was only a bit of déjà vu, I’ll wander on, shaking my head and wondering how I could have been such a fool.

But then she looked at me, and she was the same person, and I stood there in a hapless stupor as her lips curled into a malicious sneer.

“Hello, Joseph. How good to see you again.”

That from the woman I watched die.

That from the woman I helped my father kill.

“Say hello to your father for me.”

Then she turned away, just another stranger in the pouring rain. First I was walking. Then jogging. Then running. I careened down the puddle-laden street, convinced she was right behind me, ready to mete out cold, hard justice at last.

Murderer, whispered a part of myself I’d locked away for twenty-three years.

Impossible, shrieked another.

And inside, in the manic chambers of a shattered mind, a million shards of my broken soul clambered and shouted at once.

Now I am broken, and like Humpty Dumpty, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put me together again.

The Old Man’s Candy

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I never should have taken the old man’s candy.

“But Joseph,” he said, “it’s so juicy and sweet.”

He popped one in his mouth. Chewed. Swallowed. Well, my eight-year-old brain reasoned, if he could eat it, so could I.

I took one from his outstretched hand, examined the brown paper wrapper with interest, and asked, “What is it? I’ve never seen this brand before.”

His lips curled into a toadstool smile.

“Ah, Joseph, the candy you hold in your hand is one of a kind. I make it myself for special boys and girls like you. Go on, try it.”

I did. It was delicious.

An exotic rainbow of fruity flavors burst across the surface of my tongue—the invigorating tang of lemons and oranges, the elysian sweetness of strawberries and blueberries, all accented by flavors I’d never encountered before and haven’t encountered elsewhere since.

Yes, it was delicious, and from that day forward, I was hooked.

It seemed I couldn’t go for more than a few hours before my craving reached an agonizing climax. My body would ache and burn with need, as if someone had thrown me into a fire, and I would have no choice but to return to the old man’s house for more.

“Of course, Joseph. I’d love to give you more.” He flashed me his signature toadstool smile, an expression I would come to loathe. “But if I do something for you, you have to promise to do something for me.”

“Anything,” I breathed, and when he pulled three more candies from his pocket, I lunged.

“These are for tomorrow. There’s one for breakfast, one for lunch, and one for after dinner.”

He gave me a fourth to take the edge off, and all at once the longing vanished.

“Come back tomorrow, and I’ll give you your first assignment.”

That was how my life in the underground started.

At first, I was given simple jobs, like delivering packages or relaying messages. Easy enough to accomplish behind my parents’s backs, and I was always rewarded with more candy. Then I grew older, more capable, and the nature of my assignments changed. Sometimes I would steal, sometimes I would spy. I was exposed to a whole other world, to the dark and seedy underbelly of humanity. They were people who’d slipped through the cracks. Desperate people. Powerful people. Dangerous people.

By the age of twelve, I’d had enough.

“I can’t do it anymore,” I told the old man.

He just smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said he understood.

“If you want more candy,” he said, closing the door behind me, “you know where to find me.”

I was on his doorstep the following day.

It’s been thirty years, and I’ve done a lot more for the old man than steal or spy. At first I found it odd that he could survive so long. Then I thought about it some more, and I decided it wasn’t odd at all. I lay awake at night, watching the moon-limned shadows dance across the ceiling, and I ponder with manic obsession what I’ll do when he’s gone and the candy finally runs out.

“You’re mine, Joseph,” he said to me once, and he was right.

I am his, now and forever.

Totem, Part 4

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Sandy hovered over a brown leather notebook, the faint smells of ink and paper setting her imagination on fire, fueling the pen in her hand as it skittered and scratched across the surface of an empty page. It was late afternoon going on early evening, and Sandy had arrived home from work less than an hour ago.

A primal force passed back and forth between Ava and the bird, and each stared resolutely at the other, unsure how to proceed, unsure how to break down the barriers that prevented them from understanding one another. A stalemate, she thought in the dank, moldering darkness of the cave, an impasse that would not be breached until she gathered the courage necessary to break the silence.

A story, one that had come to Sandy that afternoon not long after her own close encounter of the avian kind. A young woman, not much older than herself, chosen by her village to venture into the mountains, where it was said a wizard watched over them from a distance, protecting them from harm.

Was this, then, the one whom Ava had been sent to find? Surely not a creature so small and lowly as this solitary blackbird. Yet it gazed up at her with its ink black eyes, whose immense weight bore down on her with all the regal stylings of a king, and she knew there was something there beyond the fleeting awareness of a mere animal, an uncanny stillness and depth that belied ageless wisdom and incalculable strength.

By tradition, the story went, a strong woman from the village was sent into the mountains every decade to seek out their unknown benefactor, to renew their pact of protection. It had gone on for so many generations that nobody could remember precisely why such a journey was necessary. All they knew for sure was that they would send someone, and they would be kept safe for another ten years.

A sacrifice of some kind, for not one of the women sent into the mountains ever returned.

Stories were how Sandy related to the world. They were how she dealt with the things she didn’t understand, how she made sense of a universe that, at times, seemed chaotic and irrational. In a way, it was like dreaming, an opportunity for her to pick apart and reassemble the building blocks of reality in strange and exotic configurations—a way for her mind to process and organize information as it attempted to solve problems, as it attempted to form a more complete picture of the world and how it worked.

It was no surprise that Ava, Sandy’s protagonist, would soon come to discover their mysterious wizard was a bird. Birds had been on her mind the entire afternoon, ever since her strange meeting with the blackbirds at the sandwich shop. They were where the idea for her story had come from.

“Are you—” Ava paused, unable to speak further.

I can’t believe I’m talking to a bird, she thought, knees trembling. This isn’t how the world works.

And yet.

The bird was waiting for her to finish, waiting for her to acknowledge its presence. Only then would it deign to speak with her. The idea was crazy, but a growing part of her had come to believe it was the truth.

And was her reluctance to communicate truly the consequence of a skeptical mind, or was she maybe afraid to learn that the world did, in fact, harbor secrets that defied every logical system she’d ever been taught, that the world made no more sense now than it had to her distant ancestors, who’d discerned the handiwork of unknown gods at the heart of every interaction between man and nature?

Ava swallowed. Opened her mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. At last, after a pregnant pause, she spoke again.

Sandy’s story had taken hold of her, had swept her away on the coattails of a powerful wind that carried her further and further into the depths of her imagination, into a realm where she was never quite sure how much of the story was her own.

“Are you the wizard?” Ava finished. A simple enough question, yet she’d had to move mountains inside herself to push it out.

Sandy was no longer aware of the pen in her hands or the notebook on her desk. She was in another world, the story before her pouring into her head like some exotic form of telepathy.

“Yes,” came the bird’s reply. “I am he.”

Ava took an involuntary step back. No, she thought. This can’t be. Then, out loud: “You are not the wizard.”

The bird followed after her, a mischievous gleam burning in its eyes like coals. “Oh,” it asked, “and why not?”

A pause. Then the bird spoke again.

“Help us.”

Sandy snagged on that last piece of dialog like a fish caught on a sharp hook. Where did that come from? It was so jarring, so unexpected and out of place in the story she was writing, that Sandy tried to disengage. But she was so deeply entrenched in the tale that the image in her mind refused to leave her right away, and her pen, almost of its own volition, scribbled out three more words before the dream finally burst around her like a bubble.

“Please, help us.”

Rattled, Sandy slapped her pen down on the desk and took a deep, shuddering breath. A story had never taken such complete control of her before. Sure, she was more than casually acquainted with the feeling of a story coming to life inside her head, blossoming into something entirely novel and unexpected. But she’d always been in control, had always known what was coming at least in the instant before pen met paper. But this time, it had come at her so fast, almost like a vision, startlingly lucid, and when she’d tried to pull away—to get a hold of herself again—the story had pulled her back in.

No, thought Sandy, viewing the notebook before her for the first time with suspicion and fear. She was probably just tired. Maybe she’d dozed, and that jarring pause between when she’d told herself to stop and when she’d pulled away had simply been her transition back into a fully wakeful state.

Sandy’s mind went reeling back to the blackbirds, to their strangely intelligent eyes, intense in their silent questioning.

Spooked, Sandy snapped the notebook closed. She bolted from the desk, threw open the curtains to let what remained of the outdoor light inside—a bright burnished copper—and squinted. Though the light hurt her eyes, it also felt good, felt right. It was the blinding visage of reality slapping her in the face, yanking her away from a fantasy that felt as if it had almost drowned her.

When her eyes at last adjusted to the brightness, she let her gaze wander over the familiar contours of the neighbors’s houses, over the backyard she’d grown up in what seemed a lifetime ago, over the towering oak tree she’d once climbed when she was nine.

Sandy drank in the familiar view, relishing its tangible realness. She never noticed the six blackbirds perched in the oak’s branches, shrouded in the deepening shadows.

Read part 5 here.

The Cup

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The cup is full.

I place it to my lips, tilt my head back, and drink.

The cup is empty.

I return it to the table beside the TV and go to work. When I come home again at six thirty—when I sit once more before the table, remote in hand, ready to drown myself in a hurricane of commercials and prime time programming—I reach for it again.

The cup is full.

I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know how or why it works. I only know that it’s a family heirloom, passed down to me by my mother and passed down to her by her mother before her—an ancient artifact, filigreed in untarnished silver and embossed in gold relief. Its means of production unknown, it is both a paradox and a mystery, a bold and strident reminder of all the things in the world we have yet to understand.

The liquid that materializes inside is tangy, salty, sweet. Like a gourmet meal. Like a decadent dessert. It has nourished me two to three times per day since I inherited the cup at the tender age of eighteen.

How much good could such a relic accomplish in a world ravaged by hunger and thirst? Yet it has somehow managed to fall into my lap, into that of a single middle class, middle-aged man with a decent job, a steady income, and plenty of food at his disposal.

A cruel and senseless joke, I think, setting it down on the table once more. But then the world is a savage and irrational place. It knows not of justice and balance, only of chaos and disorder.

With no children of my own, I sometimes wonder what will happen to the cup after I’m gone. Will it rot in a box, forgotten now that its stewards are no more? Or will someone happen upon it by accident, take it for their own, and start a new tradition?

I shift in my seat, dangerously close to a maddening truth I dare not think about for very long, and let the flickering pictures on the TV deliver me into oblivion.

Totem, Part 3

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Part 1 | Part 2

She’s coming!

The birds watched the girl with the bracelet make her way outside.

What do we do now?

A collective telepathic murmur followed, and no one ventured to answer.

For hundreds of years they’d searched, six men immortally bound by their former master to a cruel parody of life out of revenge for a transgression they could no longer remember. They’d crossed mountains and deserts, countries and oceans, all in the vain hope of at long last discovering the key to their prison, the totem that bound them to their blackbird bodies. Now, here they were, and here it was, and the discovery was not nearly as satisfying as they’d imagined it would be.

Their search had sustained them with the hope, however small, that they could undo their old master’s evil work, that they would at last be allowed to die. Immortality as men would have been bad enough, but immortality as birds? The first few decades had almost driven them mad. Now, they were reminded that locating the bracelet was only the first step of a longer journey. Now that they knew where it was, how would they take possession of it, and when they did, how would they destroy it?

The girl pulled a thick garment over her head, wrapped it around her waist, and had just passed by the window where they were standing when she stopped suddenly to stare down at them, eyes wide and wondering.

She knows we’re watching her.

Impossible.

Should we address her?

It’s been a long time since we encountered a human capable of speaking with us, said their leader. The memory was not a pleasant one, and he pulled away from it like a child whose hand has passed too near an open fire.

They were not afraid of the humans that populated a modern city like this one, but neither did they trust them. They were all too aware both of how they had been treated as birds and of how they themselves had treated other creatures as humans.

Still, that look in the girl’s eyes, a look that was surely mirrored in their own gaze—a look of recognition, a look that suggested a connection might be made.

When she shook her head and started to back away, the birds panicked. No, they thought, she couldn’t leave them now. They had so much to say to one another, if only they could figure out how. A questioning chirp escaped their leader’s beak, and a moment later, side by side, they followed after her.

Stop, you’re frightening her!

How else can we get her attention?

Too soon. Need to plan first.

But she’s already trying to get away.

No, this was not at all how they’d imagined their search for the bracelet would end. What should they do now? How should they proceed? At any rate, it seemed their efforts to reach the girl were in vain. She was clearly spooked, and while it was likely she could sense something about them beyond their exterior blackbird façades, she would not be open to an encounter with them right now. Not like this.

She’s getting away! Stop her!

Let her go, their leader sighed.

But she has the bracelet!

Yes, he replied, and of what use is that if she’s too afraid to speak with us? We need to give her time.

So they watched her back into the parking lot, imploring her with their eyes not to go, watched her throw open the door of a dark blue Prius, watched her slam the door behind her and start the car.

For now, said their leader, we follow. Find out where she lives, get to know her interests and her schedule, see if we can learn anything that will help us reach her. Maybe, we can even get a hold of the bracelet without her.

Yes, they decided, he was right. And when the car pulled out, they shot into the sky to follow. All was not yet lost. They would watch, and they would wait, and when the time was right, then they would act.

Read part 4 here.

Blue

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Because I attended the ConDFW in Texas this past week, I didn’t have time to prepare a new piece of flash fiction. Instead, I’ve reposted one of my Patreon shorts from last year. It should be new for most of you. I’ll have an original story for you guys next week 🙂

The stone had always been blue. Since time unremembered it had sat, polished and round, mounted in the center of the city. The people would go out in the middle of the night when it shone most brightly, and in the presence of that otherworldly glow, they would kneel and pay it homage.

It was their bedrock, the binding force that kept them civilized. A covenant between man and the infinite. So when the stone stopped giving its light, when the city’s streets went dark for the first time in recorded history, chaos loomed.

“It’s the end of the world!” they wailed. “The Gods have abandoned us.”

The priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said, taking up defensive positions around the stone. “It is only a test. We must be steadfast in our faith. Then the Gods will show us their favor once more.”

The people grumbled, restless and uneasy, but, one by one, they returned to their homes, some to pray, others to brood in silent worry.

The following night, they approached the center of the city. Once more, they saw the stone was dark.

They turned to the priests and asked, “What explanation will you offer us now?” They were wild-eyed, terrified, and half out of their minds.

Once more, the priests tried to maintain order.

“Calm yourselves,” they said. “The test has not ended. Be strong and keep the faith of our ancestors.”

“The Gods have abandoned us!” they cried. “What use are you now?”

“Be still,” the priests admonished. “The Gods have done no such thing. Return tomorrow, and you will see for yourselves that the stone gives light once more.”

Again the people grumbled. Some challenged them further, some even threatened violence if the stone was not restored to its former state as had been promised.

The priests watched them turn back, watched them disappear like apparitions, and, inwardly, they trembled. They had not a clue why the stone went dark, nor when it would share its light again.

“Please,” they implored together through a formal rite of prayer that hadn’t been invoked for more than a thousand years. “We beseech thee, the Gods of our ancestors, return to us thy divine light so that order might be restored.”

Exhausted and afraid, they retired to their quarters to sleep.

That night, the children of the city dreamed. They saw the pillars of their civilization crumble, saw their elders perish in an all-consuming fire that seemed to rise from the bowels of the Earth. An ancient cycle was nearing its end, and in that dream, a voice urged them to run if they would be a part of the next.

They each woke in a cold sweat, eyes lit with terror. But none spoke of the strange vision until much later.

The third night approached. The priests went out ahead of the crowd and observed with growing terror that the stone was still dark. They held the people back with exhortations of prayer, but, in the end, they could delay them no longer.

When the people beheld that infernal darkness, the priests tried once more to pacify them. But the citizens of the city were enraged. They were certain now the Gods had abandoned them, and all their priests could do was offer empty promises of salvation.

“The Gods have defied your predictions,” one man cried, “yet you would stand here and assure us all is well. We’re through with your lies!”

The people attacked.

The children, left behind by parents who’d already feared the streets would grow violent, heard a whisper ride in on the coattails of the wind.

Get out. Find safety outside the city walls and don’t return until the next full moon.

One by one, they filtered out into the dark.

Meanwhile, the people, having sacrificed their priests, turned on each other. A frantic, desperate bloodlust had filled their eyes and they were overtaken by an urgent need to destroy. They swept through the city like a plague, looting, murdering, burning buildings to the ground, so that in the end only a single person remained. In his final moments, he gazed up at the moon, mad with lunatic understanding, and ran himself through with his sword.

*               *               *

On the next full moon, the children crept back to the ruins of their city as the voice had told them. They passed the skeletal remains of their homes, the stinking, bloated bodies of their dead parents. The younger ones threw up. The older ones took them into their arms and led them away.

They found the stone, standing in the center as it always had. They gathered around it and lifted their voices in prayer. For a moment, there was only the wind, which whistled through broken archways and windows like a ghost. Then there was a flicker and a flash. They opened their eyes. The stone was blue once more. The children offered thanks.

In the morning, the older ones started to rebuild.

The land’s thirst for blood had been sated.

The new cycle had begun.

Totem, Part 2

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Part 1

Sandy was pissed. Derrick, her co-worker, had called in sick just as she was preparing to go home—though he certainly hadn’t sounded sick when she answered the phone—and with only an hour’s notice, her manager had asked her to stay while she found a replacement. Well, she thought as she placed new racks of bread dough into the oven, at least she was getting paid overtime.

Absently, she fingered the ivory bracelet around her wrist. It had been a habit of hers, ever since she found it in a cardboard box filled with stuff that had once belonged to her grandfather.

They’d always been close, and his death four years ago from a stroke had hit her hard.

He didn’t die with much—there was no trust or will, nor were there any significant assets to disburse—and everything that had ever been his was packed into a single box and immediately forgotten.

Then Sandy, now twenty-one, came home from college for the summer and rediscovered it in a dusty corner of her mom’s house. It was like stepping back into the past, that box, like Sandy had gotten into a time machine and toured all the best years with her grandfather. There was the chessboard and accompanying silver pieces he said his own father had given him when he was eight. The faded tweed jacket he’d worn almost every day, even though it made him smell like mothballs.

And, of course, there was the bracelet.

She’d seen it once on a shelf when she was nine. It had looked so pretty, and she’d asked if she could have it. But then her grandfather had turned to her with a funny look she’d never seen before, and after a moment of prolonged silence, he’d said it was an important family heirloom and that she couldn’t have it until she was older. That was the last time they spoke of it, and she forgot about the bracelet until the day she found it again inside the box.

It still looked pretty, she thought when she rediscovered it twelve years later. The craftsmanship was incredible, unparalleled by anything else she’d encountered before, and wearing it made her think of happier times. So she began to put it on each morning, a ritual that became as important as showering or brushing her teeth.

Now, twiddling it back and forth between her fingers, Sandy pushed the empty cart into the storeroom and took up sentry behind the cash register. With the lunch hour over, she hoped there would be few customers left before her manager came to relieve her.

That was when a fluttering mass of black caught her eye.

She turned. There, on the concrete beside the window, a tiny flock of blackbirds staring at her through the glass.

Not at me, she corrected herself. Why would they be looking at me?

And yet.

She peered into their dark, shiny eyes like plastic beads and was sure she saw a spark of recognition.

No, she was imagining things. That was certainly something she was good at. It was why she’d chosen English for her major, the reason she retreated to her room each night to write.

Birds, she reminded herself, weren’t smart like humans. She didn’t know how she looked to them, or if they even noticed her at all, but she doubted very much that they were looking on purpose.

And yet.

“Sandy?”

Her head whipped back like a bungee cord. There was a hollow smack as her hand hit something in front of her, and when she turned once more, it was just in time to witness the spray of cardboard cups that showered the tiled floor.

“Sorry, Mona.” Sandy felt her face flush, and she ran around to the other side of the counter to pick them up.

“You all right?”

“Fine. Just a little distracted.” Sandy’s cheeks burned.

Mona regarded her through slitted eyes. “Good thing I wasn’t a customer.”

Sandy didn’t say anything, only set the cups back down and wilted a little inside.

Mona could be kind and was always fair, but when she caught you doing something wrong, like daydreaming and not paying attention, she would come down on you hard.

Sandy expected her to say more, but the woman just placed her hands in her pockets and grunted.

“Just got off the phone with Charlie. We had to swap some things around, but he’s agreed to take over the rest of Derrick’s shift.”

Thank God.

Mona glanced up at the clock, then looked down at Sandy with a weary smile. “The hour’s just about up. You go on and run home. I’ll take over until he gets here.”

“Thank you.”

After Mona checked the register, Sandy clocked out and charged into what remained of the hot summer day. It was easy to forget just how hot it could get when you spent most of the day in an air conditioned building. She pulled off the sweatshirt that had saved her from freezing only minutes earlier and tied it around her waist.

The birds were still outside when she passed by the window, only now they’d turned and were once more staring up at her.

I must have startled them by walking outside.

A perfectly reasonable explanation. All the same, a strange tingle crawled across her skin. There was just something about those eyes that bothered her, and there was nothing reason could do to convince her that these were ordinary birds going about their ordinary bird business.

There were six of them, standing side by side in front of the window. Like a prison line up, she thought. One of the the birds in the middle chirped, a plaintive, questioning sound, and a moment later, the others took a couple of highly synchronized steps forward, never taking their eyes off her.

They clearly had more than a passing interested in her, and she found herself backing away, repelled by this sudden intrusion of the bizarre into what had otherwise been a usual day.

The other birds started to chirp, this time at each other, as if they were not birds at all, but a group of bickering old men. Back and forth, back and forth. Then they seemed to reach an agreement, and a moment later they were marching toward her as one.

This is too weird.

Sandy continued walking backward, heart stammering, palms clammy.

Wait, those birds seemed to say, come back.

But Sandy wasn’t interested in what they had to say, and she didn’t stop retreating until she stood in the parking lot beside her car. When her hand finally closed on the door handle, a spring inside of her uncoiled. She jammed her hands into her pockets. Yanked out her keys. Threw open the door. Slammed it shut behind her.

When at last she pulled out, she glanced through the passenger side window. She was just in time to watch them spread their wings and shoot into the sky.

Read part 3 here.

Totem, Part 1

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Only after the humans left did the birds advance. It wasn’t that they were afraid—they’d lived among people for some time and had grown used to them long ago—only that it would be easier to find what they were looking for without having to dodge the many arms and legs in a crowd.

Now that the lunch hour was over, they fanned out, charged into the outdoor dining area of a nearby sandwich shop with a singularity of mind and purpose no mere birds would have been capable of.

It’s close, called one in a soundless thought that carried effortlessly across the intervening distance. I can feel it.

It’s companions chirped in reply.

Centuries of life bound to the cold blue sky, imprisoned in fragile yet frustratingly immortal bodies. Oh, how they longed for death, and because of their master’s cruelty, it was a luxury thus far denied them.

But no prison was ever foolproof. There were always ways to skirt the rules, if only one was willing to search hard enough and long enough for solutions.

Their leader, the one who’d first spoken, poked a tiny, jittering head between the legs of a shiny aluminum table.

Not here, it cried.

Not here either, said another, fluttering out of an open trash can.

They could all feel it, an irresistible pull toward the general area. Yet that was as far as their senses allowed, and all they could do now was continue scouring the city until they located the item they sought.

A totem. Every binding required one, a physical object linked by magic to another. It was a symbol of sorts, a contract that, once broken, released the binding. In their case, it was a bracelet, a deceptively simple piece of inlaid ivory with six avian figures carved into the surface, each corresponding to another of their number. Their human bodies and mortality had been bound to them, leaving them trapped in their blackbird forms.

Strange, their leader thought, that such a relic of the past—a relic of magic and mysticism—would find its way here, to one of the many concrete jungles erected as a monument to modern, rational ideals. Had their master passed it down through his family, or had it been lost to time, eventually finding its way to the city by accident? Did it currently have an owner, and if so, did that person understand the nature of the object they possessed? Most importantly, what would happen if they retrieved it? How would they destroy it? They were only birds, without the ability to wield tools.

So many uncertainties, yet they all believed freedom was possible. They had to, because the alternative to belief was madness.

There!

One of the six had stopped with its head slanted forward, twittering left and right as it beheld with dark, glassy eyes a woman through one of the sandwich shop’s windows. It sent the image to its companions, and a moment later they were all fluttering over to meet him.

The woman stood behind a counter, stacking racks into a large metal box. And there, on her wrist, an ivory bracelet with six masterfully crafted birds, carved into the bone-white surface.

She wears it like jewelry, exclaimed one.

How did she come to possess it, asked another.

They regarded her with their pointed beaks and dark button eyes and pondered their next move.

Read part 2 here.