Giving Back

When the man walked in, Mira took a long look at the armor he wore and sighed slowly. There was no way that he, a soldier of the Imperial Guard, would fail to notice what she was doing, fail to notice that she didn’t belong here. She was the right age to fit in among the young princesses and their entourage, but she was wrong. Too skinny, too dirty, too uneducated. In short, a peasant. But Mira could hope that he wouldn’t notice. The princesses hadn’t, after all. Maybe she would be safe.
The other girls were giggling now, discussing a feast and dresses. All the while, Mira did her best to eat the light tea and cakes like one who wasn’t starving. She had expected the guard to say something by now, to cast her out of the palace. Instead, he had carefully made sure she had gotten slightly more food and a chance to clean up before sitting down at the table.
As the evening wore on, Mira waited for the other shoe to drop. It had to. Nice things like this didn’t happen for people like her. She would be fined, which she couldn’t pay. Or imprisoned. Or worse. The other girls were heading back to family estates and she would head back to her own street corner to sleep. Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and look up into the face of that man, the Imperial Guard.
“Come on, Mira”
“What?”
Mira tensed up, ready to run. Then he smiled.
“It was nice of you to wait while the other girls went home” He glanced around and gestured, showing that no one else was around. “But you should get cleaned up and ready for bed.”
As he led her through the back passages of the palace, he paused.
“Tell me the truth, Mira. You’re an orphan, yes?”
She nodded slowly.
“From the war or the plague?”
“B-both, Sir.”
He nodded again.
“If anyone asks, you’re my daughter. They know I had…” He paused. “The plague. It was as bad here as it was in the city, I promise. And if you’re clever enough to sneak in here, then I think you deserve something for it. You’re also the same age my girl would have been… So, to my mind, the gods are giving us both something back. You a home, and me a child.”
She blinked, uncertain. Then she smiled.
“Will I always get to play with the other girls like that?”
“Until they’re young ladies. I’m afraid then they’ll get conceited and think they’re better than a mere soldier’s daughter.”

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I Am the White Lady

It was an old house to start with, long before the family came to make the house a home. They brought laughter to empty halls and music to the air. They bright color to the gardens and hung pictures on the walls. They had no idea they weren’t alone.

The woman was in the attic. The kitchen. The bathroom. The garden. The hallway. She was especially in the mirror in the family room, smiling at the children as they played. Her dress was white.

The adults saw her rarely but they felt her often. Cold spots where there should be none, a bit of a breeze. It was the children who saw her, who spoke of her. She was their nice lady in white.

She was in their pictures. An older woman in a white dress with a smile on her face. She stood behind the children. They could see the background through her, but here she was. Their protective lady in white.

As the children got older, they began to wonder about the kindly woman they were seeing less and less. Was she nothing more than a figment? Their imaginary lady in white?

A century before, a kindly woman lived with husband and children and watched over them all. And when the Spanish Flu claimed her, she continued to watch over them as their guardian lady in white.

A Chance to Regret – Part 3

Soon enough, I had Chubs safely strapped onto the back of my motorcycle and we were off. Of course, I knew where I was going. Sure, the streets looked a little different and the old bodega was some 24-hour convenience store now, but the taqueria across the street was still the same old place. The paint was peeling and the windows were dark, but I remembered every inch of the inside. When I parked my bike, I stood by the windows and looked in, wondering if Maria’s folks still owned it. Probably. If they were alright, anyway. That brought me right back down to Earth. Would she meet me on the streets? Or did I have to go inside? First thing’s first, though, I had to unstrap the cat carrier from the back of my bike.
Carrier in hand, I went to the door of the taqueria and waited, uncertain. There were no lights on inside and the door didn’t budge when I pushed it. Then I heard a click and looked up fast. A man stood in the alley between the storefronts, a mask over the lower half of his face. But I recognized him without trouble. He was thinner than I’d remembered, paler too. It was like the color had been washed out of him. But there was no question he was Maria’s Papi. He looked me over, stepping out onto the sidewalk.
“She’s upstairs, Chiquita.” He held out a hand for the carrier and then pressed a mask into my hands. “I didn’t think we would be seeing you. Too dangerous.”
I shook my head and smiled ruefully.
“Well, no one ever said I was smart when it comes to Mari.”
Then I pulled the mask on, not quite sure why I needed it if we were going inside. I wasn’t sick and Chubs sure didn’t have whatever this mess was. Then a chill shot through me. What about Maria’s Mama? Was she alright?


Part 2: here
Part 1: here

Festival

It was surprising how quickly it fell down to dark in the lower city with the walls reaching for the sky. They blocked the sun far sooner than the light left the ridge where the mansions and estates of the wealthy were perched. Her thoughts were down there in the darkness and the squalor, not here where she stood surrounded by garlands and ribbons and light. The Midwinter fires were lit and people frolicked in the street, laughing and sharing warm drinks and food. She moved among them, exchanging the traditional greetings as easily as she breathed, despite the rage that filled her. How dare they. How dare they have a week of festival while people died in the slums? Did they even know about the pox? They would soon enough, even if they didn’t now.
She approached the largest of the bonfires, gazing into it for a long moment. Then she produced the small clay pot she’d carried this whole way and rolled it into the flames. She could see it still for a moment, then the flames began to eat at it. The smoke changed then, turning a sickly green. She had done her work. Covering her mouth with the cloth she carried, she turned away before she could inhale any of that smoke. Soon enough, they would learn their lesson.

A Chance to Regret – Part 2

“I’m sorry.”
Those were the last words I ever expected to see in stark text on my phone when I woke up. I pulled my knees up to my chest and stared at them in wonder.
“I should be the one saying that, Mari.”
I whispered the words as I typed them out, breaking the morning silence.
“I’m scared, Jess.”
“Where are you?”
Silently, I begged her to tell me, to allow me back in.
“Too dangerous.”
“Please?”
There were hot tears on my cheeks again, just like every morning since she’d left me.
“Stay safe.”
“Maria, I love you.”
“I know.”
My hands were shaking and the phone fell from my fingers. It wasn’t right. It couldn’t possibly end like this. I had to see her again, keep her safe and ward off her fears. I had to make up for what I’d done. I ran my fingers nervously through my hair, trying to keep down the sudden surge of anxiety that was screaming horrors in my mind.
“Jess, if you think you can make it safely, come to where we first met.”
The message flashed at me from within the blankets and I nearly started sobbing again in joy. Then another message.
“And if you don’t bring the Purritto, I will never forgive you.”

Chubs hated his carrier. It was a well-known fact of life, one made more troublesome by his nearly seventeen pounds of feline glory. I managed to coax him in with the last vestiges of carefully hoarded catnip supply and prepared to go. I’d pulled on a jacket and gloves, despite the warmth and wished I had a face mask.
“Come on, you monster, we’re going to see Maria.”
I was so happy I nearly sang. Chubs, for his part, merely yawned and started to sleep.
“Some moral support you are.”

A Chance to Regret – Part 1

Neither of us was watching the tv, though it sat on and the news anchor was talking. It didn’t matter, it was inconsequential compared to the small war happening in our apartment. Tensions had been rising, and the week of Cold War had finally gone hot. Maria flung her hairbrush at me and it smacked the wall resoundingly. For my part, my hands were up defensively and there were tears running down my cheeks. But I had no words to defend myself. I had done what she’d accused me of. It hadn’t just been a one-time indiscretion either. I hung my head in shame, trying to find words, to find promises that would make her stay. Her slap stung my cheek, but I didn’t try to stop her, not even when she turned to stride into our bedroom yelling about how she couldn’t believe I’d abused her trust like this. I wanted to chase after her, tell her she was right and I was worthless. Instead, I sunk to the floor and cried.
I must have fallen asleep like that because I woke up on the floor the next morning when my cat unceremoniously sat on my chest and started meowing in my face.
“Morning, Chubs…”
My voice was rough, even a bit hoarse. I with a sigh, I pulled myself to my feet to get a start on my morning routine, knowing that I at least had to feed the cat before I let my world come crashing down.
“-advised to avoid public places and reminded to wash their hands thoroughly after any contact with others.”
I nearly jumped out of my own skin at the sudden voice. The tv was still on. So, she hadn’t turned it off before she left. I felt the first pangs of pain and squashed them down.
“Feed Chubs now, be a fuck up later.”
He rubbed against my ankles and I smiled weakly. A few minutes later, I left Chubs happily eating and went to go find clean clothes and my shower. Our- My room was absolutely ransacked. I just sighed, shoulders drooped, and picked a clean pair of boxers from the floor. I’d clean it up after work. Adding a bra, a shirt and a pair of jeans to my armload, I trudge into the bathroom.

“What?”
I couldn’t possibly have heard right.
“I said, don’t bother coming in. We’re closed. The Governor issued a state of emergency, right after the CDC said we’re dealing with an epidemic. Have you been under a rock or something, Jess?”
For a moment, my mind was swamped with images of Maria screaming at me the night before.
“Something like that…”
“Well, pull yourself together and watch the news. You can’t miss it.”
“Thanks, Boss. I will.”
With that, I hung up the phone and plopped myself down in front of the tv. There was a different news anchor now, a blond woman in an uncomfortable looking plaid pantsuit. She had a map behind her and was talking about disease spread and the vectors of transfer. A list of symptoms scrolled across the screen as she talked about home treatments.
“-should be on the lookout for fever, rashes, extreme fatigue, soreness in the joints and periods of dizziness…”
I waited for them to say something about a cure, anything. Nothing. It never came. I fiddled with my phone, trying to decide what to do. I needed food and maybe bottled water. But my eyes kept being drawn to the door. Where was Maria now? Was she safe? Who was she with? Chubs climbed up into my lap and purred, rubbing against my hand.
“Don’t worry, buddy. I’ll make sure to pick up crunchies for you too.”

Hours turned to days and soon, it had been just over two full weeks. I’d started pacing a furrow in my carpet with all my worrying. Chubs and I were running out of food and I’d spent the better part of the morning online learning how to boil the impurities out of water correctly. The whole time, though, all I could think of was Maria. Flopping back into my chair, I looked again at my phone. Then a new resolve overtook me. I unlocked my phone and sent her a text.
“Are you okay?”
That was it. Safe enough. She might even respond. Setting the phone back down, I went to the window to look out at the city I called home. There was smoke coming from somewhere near the harbor and I silently prayed that the city wasn’t burning. It was strange seeing the place like this, no cars on the roads and hardly anyone out. Mostly it was just officials in hazmat suits. The place had turned into a wasteland. Turning away, I went back to the tv. Reports were still coming in, but the hosts seemed stricken now. And they didn’t leave their station anymore. My phone sitting beside me buzzed and I nearly threw it in the excited scramble to scoop it up.
“Yeah. You?”
It wasn’t much of a message, but those bare few words held me. They were a promise and they were my only hope of salvation.
“Not sick. Me and Chubs are alright.” I hesitated for a moment and then added two more words. “Miss you.”
I hit send before I could change my mind and put the phone in my pocket as I went into the small kitchen to scrounge up something to eat.