Going Home

Gwen paced nervously as she waited for the knock on the door she knew was coming. Nessa would be there any minute with dinner. She would have a takeaway bag of their favorite Thai foods and that smile Gwen couldn’t say no to. Except that tonight she would have to say much more than no. Tonight, she would have to say goodbye.

She stopped her pacing for just a moment, leaning against the countertop to stare down at the roll of parchment that had upset the careful balance of her life. It had been a shock when it had appeared beside her bed in the night.

Bitterly, Gwen remembered so many years ago when she had been sent, sobbing, far from her home. It had been for her safety, they had said. They couldn’t guarantee her protection if she stayed. Now they wanted her back, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to go.
Scooping up the offending scroll, she looked one last time at the seal of her house and shoved the whole thing into a cabinet. If tonight had to be the last, then better it be a good memory for them both.

Vanessa knocked not more than a minute later, a smile on her face as she held up the bag.
“I got extra satay since you ate all of mine last time.”
“You’re the best, Nessa.”
Gwen closed the door, trying to figure out what to say and how to say it while Vanessa put the food on the table.
“Hey, Earth to Gwen.”
Vanessa’s giggle drew Gwen out of her thoughts and she looked up to see Vanessa holding plates in one hand and the roll of parchment in the other.
“What’s this, love?”
“It’s…that’s…” Gwen froze, staring at the scroll, then her shoulders slumped. “It’s a royal decree from my mother. I have to go home.”
“A royal decree?” For a moment, Nessa grinned, but slowly the smile vanished. “You’re serious. Oh God, you’re serious.”
Vanessa set the plates on the table and dropped into her chair, reading and re-reading the scroll. Then she set it on the table and looked across at Gwen, her face full of wonder.
“Tell me. Tell me everything.”
For the next two hours, they ate and Gwen told Nessa everything she could remember from those long ago days under the double moons. She told about her mother’s court and the civil war, about the death of her father, the rumors of assassins. Gwen didn’t notice when she set down her fork and didn’t pick it back up, so wrapped up was she in her telling. She painted a picture of words, drawing on every detail of her so-nearly forgotten childhood. She could see it all again from the slightly blue shade of the grass to the light grey sky with the single golden spire of her mother’s castle illuminated against it.
“The war’s over.” The words left Gwen’s mouth quietly, uncertainly. “That means I have to go home. Be the heir.”
“But you don’t want to.”
It wasn’t a question. It was never a question, but Gwen answered it anyway.
“I don’t want to leave you.”
The silence hanging between them in that moment was painful. Then Vanessa tapped the scroll.
“They said there would be a portal? To bring you home?”
Gwen nodded mutely and Vanessa soldiered on.
“You know how this stuff works. Would anything go wrong if we both went through?”

At the stroke of midnight, the portal opened in the throne hall as scheduled. This was the best time, during the conjunction of celestial objects that would put their material existence closest to that where they had hidden the Princess Gwynneth. Tonight, she would be coming home. The court tittered with excitement and the Queen leaned forward on her throne with eager anticipation. A shadow formed in the portal and a shape stepped through, followed closely by a second one. There was no mistaking the princess, even in tattered jeans and an old, oversized t-shirt. It was in her manner and her bearing. She bowed low before her mother and gestured to the woman who stood at her right hand.
“Mother, may I present my love, Lady Vanessa.”
The Queen smiled and nodded as Vanessa sketched a shaky bow. Gwen relaxed inwardly and reached for Vanessa’s hand. Now. Now, she was truly home.

Siege

That was the problem with living out in the hills. When something happened, there wasn’t anyone near enough to help. So when the sky lit up like the Fourth of July in the middle of September, the Mayweather family did the only thing they could do: they prepared. Pa had a shotgun he kept in his closet for days like this and he sat on the porch with it across his lap, waiting to see what might happen. Jimmy sat perched in his window with his 12-gauge leveled on the drive up to the house. Sue Ellen had her little compound hunting bow in her hands as she watched the back yard. Mama only kept an eye to the sky, but she did holster on Pa’s pistol when she went to take down the laundry.
The lights stopped around dusk and they heard something rustling in the bushes at the tree line. Pa watched it and Jimmy took aim. It was a furry little creature about 3 feet tall and darkly purple. It walked towards the house with hands upraised and no expression any of them could read. Jimmy’s hands were shaking and the old dog that usually slept at Pa’s feet let out a howl. A crack echoed through the farm as Jimmy pulled the trigger. The creature flipped in the air, landing on its back. Then it stood again and continued to walk forward. More of them began to appear out of the bushes, each walking like that with their hands up. The Mayweathers hunkered down, pulling the windows and doors closed and hoped the creatures would soon be gone. The creatures leaned against the glass and screens, staring in with their wide yellow eyes and their little hands still in the air. They didn’t make a sound and didn’t move an inch, just stayed there like that for hours. Finally, as the first fingers of dawn appeared on the horizon, they turned and walked away back into the brush.

Misidentification

There are a few different classifications of dead people, and that’s the problem. Most of them, thank whatever, move on. I don’t know where they go. That’s not my job. My job is the other kinds. The never-were, the lost, the malefactors, and the desperate. That’s what I call them. The never-were are the ones I hate to meet the most. They’re a mixed bag of child spirits, some of them died young and some were just wanted so badly that they couldn’t leave. The lost at least don’t know what they are. They keep going about their lives with no idea that anything’s changed. It can get unnerving with the old ones. They don’t know how the newer buildings work and they end up going through them. The malefactors are pretty much what it says on the tin. They’re bad. If it tries to crawl into someone, kill someone, take over and destroy things, then it’s a malefactor. The scariest though, are the desperate. Malefactors do it because they have to, because evil and destruction is their nature. The desperate want to. They’re trying to find a way to cling to life in any way they can. They ride in other people’s bodies and try to reclaim who they were, they refuse to give up their past. All in all, it’s a bad time. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell what kind you’re dealing with. The lines blur and that’s when things get dangerous. That was probably how I ended up backed into a corner with four children smiling up at me. Their eyes weren’t black when I let them in. I know they weren’t. I know the rules. But today, it looked like the rules were being broken.
“Don’t worry. Our parents are on the way.”
I could hear the front door opening and my pulse hammered in my ears, blotting out the rest of what they said. Slow, deliberate footsteps made their way up my stairs and I turned towards the sound, dreading what I might see. My blood ran cold as I stared into my own eyes. The other me smiled slowly and walked forward, placing a hand on the shoulder of the tallest of the children.
“Now don’t worry, dear, there will be more than enough for all of us to feast.”

Tracks

She knew he was from the wrong side of the tracks. But, honestly, when he gave her that cheeky grin and his eyes went all warm and tender just for her, it was hard to care. It didn’t matter that she was from the best part of town and owned dresses worth more than the entire building the apartment he shared with his family was in, not when she lay in his arms and they spent the night looking up at the stars. She wished, sometimes, that he had been born into her world, but she knew in her heart that he wouldn’t be the same person if he had been. He would be like the other boys, the ones who spoke only of things he derided as frippery and pretended they knew how the world really worked. She didn’t care that he was from the wrong side of the tracks, but her mother and father would. They wanted her to make a society match, to marry for the betterment of the family. But she looked into his dancing eyes and then leaped wholeheartedly into them, drowning in a sea of soft green. They promised things they couldn’t and believed their own lies. The railroad tracks had never seemed all that wide, but they were worlds apart. Two worlds that collided and threatened to keep moving to part again. Until the day she appeared at the door of his apartment with a suitcase in her hand, tears in her eyes, and his child under her heart.

Red Hair, Red Fur

The howls echoed in that dark night painting pictures of blood stained maws and sharp rows of teeth in the minds of the people in the ráth. All but one mind, anyway. It was a wolf moon, her father had said. It was wolf weather, the priest had intoned. Still, Aine ni Cathair was drawn to the hills and the cliffs and the open air. She donned a cloak and pinned it fast, pulling the hood up to hide her wild, red hair and her freckle-strewn face as she passed through the doors and into the night.
A steady rain fell and mist clung to the ground like man to a mystery, parting only slightly as Aine passed through. She carried no torch against the darkness and kept her steps light. The path to the cliff was a well-trod one and one she knew as she knew her own heart. That was why she was surprised to find something there she had never seen before: two torches, one to either side of the track.
Aine paused for only a moment before striding between them with determination and purpose. This was her place, her family’s land, and whoever was out here in the night would regret it if they were trespassing.
A lone figure stood beyond, a silhouette carved against the sky. They faced the sea and as Aine came closer, she could make out silver curls of hair.
“Gran? Is that you?”
The woman turned, a smile on her face as she looked at her granddaughter. Again, Aine hesitated. Her grandmother stood in the soaking rain beyond the torches with a knife in her hand, reflecting the light, and a fur over her shoulders.
“T’is, my dear. Come closer so I can see you.”
Aine took another step forward, hearing the howls echoing off the hillsides.
“Gran, why’re you out in the rain?”
The old woman chuckled softly.
“Why, the same reason as you, my dear.”
Another few steps brought Aine even closer before she paused.
“Gran, where’d you get that wolf skin?”
The woman reached to pat the fur of the skin thrown over her shoulders and smiled fondly, as though at a distant memory.
“Why, I’ve had it since I was your age, my dear.”
Aine stood only a single step away from her grandmother now and she could feel the fear warring with confusion in her gut.
“Gran, why’ve you got that dreadful big knife?”
The old woman flipped the blade in her hand and held out the hilt her to granddaughter.
“Why, so you can claim your own skin, my dear.”

The howls echoed in that dark night and the moon climbed further into the sky. The people in the ráth could hear the trembling call of a new wolf joining the hunt. Outside, a red wolf ran at the side of an old silver one, never as free before as she was now.

The Home for Forgotten Monsters

Mrs. Tipton smiled sadly at her newest boarder when she opened the door of the lodging house.
“Oh, my dear, I never thought you’d be joining us.”
The old woman at the door slumped her shoulders and pulled her shawl tighter around her shoulders.
“No one lasts for ever. Not anymore.”
Mrs. Tipton nodded slowly, sadly, and stepped aside.
“I’ve set aside a room for you on the top floor. It’s only been Annis up there for years and I think she could use the company.”
Together, they climbed the rickety old stairs through the lodging house. They could hear the sounds of the other boarders in their rooms. Annis was singing, her windows wide and her voice like the wind on the moors. Jenny’s door was thrown open and the smell of a stew simmering wafted into the corridors. One woman stood in her doorway in a gown that had fit once, had been considered elegant once. Now, it was tattered and her looks had long since faded. She smiled distantly at the pair as they passed by.
“I’ve heard, Mrs. Tipton, that there’s to be a play staged in my honor this evening. At the Globe, no less. Another of William’s bits of brilliance, I’m certain.”
Mrs. Tipton returned her smile and patted the woman’s hand reassuringly.
“That’s right, Titania, dear. I’m sure it will be just delightful.”
They left the Faerie Queen humming to herself and dancing through a glade that existed now only in her mind. Soon, they reached the top floor and the vacancy.
“This would be your room. Let me know if you need anything and if you’ve any questions about the rules, I’m sure Annis would be happy to help.”
The old woman looked at the tidy bed with its clean sheets.
“Once, I slept on an oven, you know.”
“I know, dearie.”
Mrs. Tipton watched as the woman went to the window.
“I never thought it would come to this. I thought if I could last through that wretched Stalin, I could last through anything. Even when they were afraid of the atom, they remembered to be afraid of me.”
Black Annis stood in the doorway, a sorrowful expression on her monstrous visage.
“Humans don’t need us monsters anymore, Baba Yaga. They’ve made worse than we could ever be out of themselves.”

Trenches

Alright, I’ll admit it. I have no idea what I’m doing here. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I believe in the cause. I made my sign myself after a late night craft store run. The cashier was so funny, asking if we had a project for school.
“No, ma’am, we’re actively participating in our democracy.”
That had been my best friend’s flippant response. I’d seen this kind of thing on TV and I was scared. They kept saying it would be fine though. Somehow, I don’t think they really understood.

Now, I was trying not to cry as I heard shouting and loud bangs that sounded a lot like explosives to my ears. That was when he appeared out of the smoke. A tall man with dark hair cut military short. He was wearing wraparound shades that obscured his eyes, a bandanna over the lower half of his face, and a tight t-shirt with a Spartan logo on it. He grabbed my arm and hauled me up.
“Come on, kid. How’re you doing?”
I tried to speak and started coughing. He cursed in a language I didn’t understand and handed me a bottle and a bandanna.
“Swish and spit. Wet the bandanna and hold it over your mouth. Got me, kid?”
I nodded once, uncertain. We both heard the sound that caught his attention then. It was like a loud pop and then something hissing. I didn’t think, I just moved. Doing as he’d told me, I kept the bandanna over my mouth as I stayed low hoping this stuff worked like smoke. He grabbed my arm and pointed, making signs I’d never seen. I could follow it though. Grab the woman near us and follow him.
He led us up a side street where there were a few people working on a sort of street triage. He nodded to them, clearly knowing each and every one of them. My eyes were burning and tears streamed down my face. The woman we’d helped out was worse off though. Another woman grabbed a bottle of something and was talking quietly to her, saying she was here to help. Not to worry a bit.
When my eyes were clear, I started helping. He coached me, teaching me things I never thought I would learn. I learned more about how medicine really works than I ever had before. And not gentle, kind, sterile medicine. This was rough and we could only do our best. Sometimes, I wondered what he was doing here. He was a soldier. He had to be. But he just laughed and said he fought in these trenches now, in this new kind of war for liberty. If he was a general, I think I would follow him to the ends of the earth.
“Come on, kid. You and me, we’ve got more people to help.”