Byakuya (White Night)
by Dibyasree Nandy
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
The moon was obscured as a storm raged. The willows and the wisteria swayed in a mad frenzy as the wind spurred their tumult on. Fronds, reeds and thin blades of grass flew up towards the purple heavens in a wild swirl as the boats drifting on the heaving breast of the river undulated dangerously. The fires flickering within the clay lanterns had blown out and the winding pathway through the rice fields had turned dark.
The young samurai from Edo, Byakuya Chiba, braved the tempestuous eve, haori flapping in the high zephyr, miles from his hometown. He had received an invitation from his distant cousins from the countryside, felt it would be a disservice to not visit, despite the harsh conditions of the weather.
His cousin Kazuya was about to get married, and the girl in question would be staying at the household for a few days to get acquainted with the relatives of the family she would soon be a part of. Hence, Byakuya was asked to dine with them. His cousins and their parents had been long-time traders in rice and therefore, were rather affluent and influential in the village. Their elegant residence contained many hanging tapestries and even a backyard with lilies-of-the-valley, lavender, and plum blossoms that overlooked a koi pond, lotuses floating on its surface.
"Oh, Byakuya, it has been a while!" greeted his uncle, "Rough night, eh?"
Byakuya bowed, "Yes, Sir. Thank you for inviting me."
"Very good of you to come, my boy, despite the rain. Leave your haori here, your aunt will have it dried. You are completely drenched. The living room is not as chilly."
There was a single oil-lamp in the room that Byakuya was ushered into; he still shivered ever so slightly.
A soft knock on the sliding door alerted him. "May I come in?" It was a woman's voice.
A girl demurely walked in with a set of clothes tucked under her arms. "Master Byakuya, I was asked to give you these. Warm yukata ."
Byakuya narrowed his eyes. Her manner of speech....
"Are you.... Kazuya's wife-to-be?"
"Yes. Yuriko was the name I was born with."
Name she was born with? That was a distinctly odd way of introducing oneself.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss. Kazuya is a lucky man, I should say."
"Thank you, Master Byakuya. I hope you will enjoy your stay." She lowered her head and let herself out. While Byakuya changed, he wondered...Why is her kimono so shabby when she will soon be wedded to Kazuya? They didn't even present her with proper clothes? Why did she come to serve me? It was most unbecoming of her in-laws to let her venture out alone before a bachelor like me... Anyone else could have done it. Why treat her like a hired help? Did my aunt and uncle not approve of the match? But then why go to all the trouble to invite me? And her tone of speaking bothers me the most.....It is almost as if-
Byakuya's thoughts were interrupted as the door was slid open yet again.
"Yo, Byakuya!" It was Tatsuya, Kazuya's elder brother. "I take it you've met the princess?"
"I do not approve of your frivolity, Tatsuya."
"As straight-laced as ever, I see. Your bushido, is it?"
Byakuya did not grace his cousin with a reply. Tatsuya went on, "Quite a catch, wouldn't you agree?"
"She is the fiancee of your brother!" The samurai hissed, a hand on the hilt of his sword, "How dare you use such intonation while addressing the girl?"
"That was a joke, Byakuya! You needn't get so riled up!"
"I do not like such distasteful jests."
"Remove your hand from your sword. I just came to inform you that dinner is ready."
Byakuya sighed. He never did get along with this particular cousin of his. Then again, Kazuya was no better, a man of a cowardly disposition.
Dinner was a quiet affair. Byakuya ate in silence. He noticed Kazuya out of the corner of his eyes. Instead of being elated at the prospect of tying the knot, he jumped at every thunderclap, at every noise made by a stray twig striking the shut windows. His aunt and uncle tried to make small talk, but each time Byakuya brought up the subject of Yuriko, they appeared uncomfortable. Tatsuya merely smirked.
Yuriko never turned up at dinner.
There was something not quite right in this household.
"Excuse me... but isn't Miss Yuriko going to join us?" Byakuya inquired.
"No..." Tatsuya folded his arms and threw Byakuya a significant glance, "she's feeding.... a little kitten."
"A cat in this storm?"
"Her very own."
Tatsuya's gaze was unnerving. He was trying to convey something to Byakuya.
"Tatsuya!" His father reprimanded him, "Enough!"
"What? I was just stating facts. Right, little brother?"
Kazuya was startled. His dropped his chopsticks, they clattered and rolled on the wooden floor. "I.... don't know what you're talking about."
"Well..." Tatsuya shrugged, "let's just leave it at that... for now."
After dinner, Byakuya's aunt led him to a very comfortable bed-chamber. A futon was already laid out for him and a candle-stand with a glowing wick. "I wanted to ask... Is something wrong with Miss Yuriko?"
"You must not dwell too much on irrelevant issues, Byakuya. You have come a long way from Edo, just rest for now, yes?" He did not like the glint in her eyes. Were his relatives always so sinister? No. When did the dynamics shift? Was it the appearance of Kazuya's fiancee? And why on earth does Kazuya look like he has been stung by a hornet?
And the biggest question of them all... Why was he invited to begin with?
As Byakuya pulled up the sheets and made to blow out the wick, he heard the rustling of a kimono.
"Hello, Mister." He nearly upset the candle before realizing that he wasn't alone in the room. A very young child was smiling at him, she could not have been more than five or six. Her voice was melodious and she couldn't formulate words very clearly; she was extremely sweet with rosy, chubby cheeks. "You are nice."
"What are you called, little one?" Byakuya patted her on the head.
"That is a very beautiful name. Lily-of-the valley. Did your mother give it to you?"
"She did not have time. I borrowed it."
"You live here? But I did not see you at dinner."
"I live in a dark place. I hate it. But I love the nice lilies near my home."
"How did you come here in this rain?"
"I am always here in this house. I was only playing at dinnertime."
"A dark place, you say? Perhaps, the candle has blown out in the storm in your room?"
"I don't like dark places. Can I stay here with you? You are good."
"Of course, Miss Suzuran. But won't your mother worry?"
"I see. Then you are most welcome."
"What are you called, Mister?"
"Bya-ku-ya..."The child tilted her head.
"Is it difficult to say?" He smiled gently.
"Very. What does it mean?"
"The characters for my name read as 'white night'."
"But nights are not white."
"No, indeed they are not."
"Then why did your Mama and Papa give you that name?"
"Well... they wanted me to become the light that would guide people out of darkness."
The child brightened.
"Then you'll save me, Bya-ku-ya?"
"You need saving?"
"I try to get out of that dark place, but I can't. Will you help me?"
"But you're here with me right now, aren't you?"
"Yes, still..." She appeared morose, so Byakuya softly addressed her, "I'll protect you, Miss Suzuran. You needn't look so sad. Where is your father, little one?"
"I don't have a Papa."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. Forgive me."
"But you're so good. I wish you were my Papa."
Overwhelmed with emotion, Byakuya stilled for a pause. "So, Kazuya, Tatsuya, Miss Yuriko... how are you related to them?"
"I am only related to Yuriko. She is also a lily like me. The others.... I never saw their faces... I live in a dark place, I can't see."
Byakuya was shocked. "You are unable to see? Then how did you find me?"
"I don't know, Bya-ku-ya, but maybe because there is light in your name."
"Miss Suzuran, you say you borrowed your name. From whom?"
"That explains it. Come with me, Suzuran. I'll rescue you."
"You have my word."
Byakuya got out of bed and proffered his arm for the child to take. A tiny palm was slipped into his.
"Tatsuya! Tatsuya! I need to have a word with you!" Byakuya stood with Suzuran, who didn't even reach his knee, outside the room of the samurai's raucous cousin. Yawning, Tatsuya walked languidly out. Upon noticing Byakuya's extended arm,
Tatsuya straightened himself and leaned against the wall.
"So, Byakuya, I take it you're holding the palm of the Zashiki-Warashi that haunts this dwelling?"
"You know, then? Where is the child buried?"
"Beneath the lily-of the-valley shrubs in our backyard. It was I who did it. That is, gave her a proper burial."
"Yuriko is from Yoshiwara, yes? I thought her lilting tone of speech is very similar to the courtesans there. Her work-name was Suzuran, I believe?"
"Astute of you, Byakuya. Look, you and I never really got along, but I'm no scumbag like Kazuya. He led a wayward life and took a fancy to Yuriko. My parents were obviously furious. In Yoshiwara, courtesans are forbidden to get pregnant. Since Kazuya was a regular and always asked for Yuriko, she was forced to end the life of the child she was already carrying. My parents finally approved once they heard the news. I hated them all... Believe me, Byakuya! If I had the means, I would've killed them! That's why I called for you. Zashiki-Warashi are children drawn to those with pure hearts. Despite what you may or may not think, I do admire you. I thought you would do something about the child. I cannot see the Zashiki-Warashi, nor can the others, but every time they witness Yuriko's accusing eyes on them, they can sense the haunting. I mean, given what happened to her, there's no way a spirit wouldn't walk about this residence."
"Thank you, Tatsuya, for bringing the child out of that red hell. And now, go back to bed. I shall take it from here."
"Never thought we'd agree on one subject at least."
Still clutching Suzuran's little hand, Byakuya made his way to the garden in the backyard. He pointed to a particularly rough thicket near the lilies-of-the-valley.
"Little Miss, that's the dark place you don't like, yes?"
She was cowering behind Byakuya. "Mmm. But Bya-ku-ya, won't Mama be sad?"
"Your Mama, Suzuran, wants you to live in a land where you shall make plenty of other friends. It shall be a place beyond a scarlet bridge. All you have to do is wait there and play with your little companions. One day, you will be called and you will cross the bridge to return. Make no mistake, child, you will be called again."
"Maybe not by her, but by someone equally wonderful."
"You won't forget me, Bya-ku-ya?"
"Of course not!"
Not letting go of the child's hand, Byakuya knelt down by the hedge and dug in the mud with his left hand. The downpour was harsher than before but he did not cease. Eventually, the edge of a bloodied cloth touched his finger. He covered Suzuran's eyes. "Suzuran, you don't have to see this. Just hide your face in my clothes. Do not open your eyes until I say so. Will you do that for me?"
Suzuran let out a whimper and buried her face in Byakuya's jade-hued garb. Bringing the tiny bundled cloth out, Byakuya kissed it and held it close to his heart. "Suzuran, there's no darkness anymore. Look. There are no clouds in the sky, just the light of the full moon. Do you see that?"
Water sprayed across Byakuya's face.
"Ah! Amazing! It's so lovely and silvery!" Suzuran was gazing up at the heavens, moon rays illuminating her face. "Thank you, Bya-ku-ya! Thank you! White night!"She cheered, "White night!"
"Yes, the moon is round and high up in the air this evening, no storms, no despair, nothing." Byakuya's expression was incredibly desolate. "Are you happy now, dear child?"
"Oh yes! I love you, Mister Bya-ku-ya! When I return, I'll come to see you. That's a promise!"
"I will be waiting...."
A single lily-of-the-valley remained in Byakuya's palm, brown and muddy, a faint fragrance of coppery tears lingering on the petals, shoulder-length hair plastered to his temples, slate-coloured eyes downcast.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. "You'll catch a cold." It was Tatsuya. "Let's go in." The lines on Tatsuya's visage were unusually bitter. When Byakuya didn't move, he whispered, "Did she have a name?"
"I'll remember that."
Five years passed. Byakuya, now thirty-three, hadn't raised a sword since his encounter with Suzuran. Every time he held a blade, he remembered that a samurai snuffed out lives, giving birth to souls who wandered about aimlessly in the pitch-black nothingness, no one to guide them towards the moon.
One day, he received a visit at his residence in Edo. It was Tatsuya.
"Is something the matter?"
"Byakuya, there's something you ought to know."
"You appear grave. Have a seat."
"Never mind me. Yuriko killed herself."
"She left a note addressed to me. Said she had a dream about a bridge. Someone was calling her. The one who summoned her said they were too impatient, couldn't wait anymore. She received a lily-of-the-valley. That was apparently her permit. Say, Byakuya, weren't you holding a white flower on that night as well? I heard you mention 'I'll be waiting'... What exactly was that all about?"
Byakuya felt something like a creeper slowly snake around his heart, asphyxiating him.
"That child... Suzuran... I told her she would be sent to a beautiful land beyond a bridge where others like her live. Additionally, I assured her, she'd be called someday and then, she would cross the bridge and return here."
"Byakuya, you fool, you do realize that people from this side can cross the bridge to the other end as well, right?"
That night, Byakuya heard her little voice again.
"I wish you were my Papa...."
Yoshiwara: The red-light district in Edo.
'Yuri': Means 'lily'
Work-name: Courtesans in Yoshiwara often used fancy names that were different from their given names. The given names were usually rather simplistic as mostly, these young girls who were sold off, were from villages. In this story, Yuriko used the name 'Suzuran' because it is closest in meaning to lilies.
Dibyasree Nandy resides in India. After completing M.Sc and M.Tech, she began writing during the lock-down period of the Covid-19 pandemic. She has written four books, 'The Labyrinth of Silent Voices-Epistles of the Mahabharata', 'Stardust- Haiku and Other Poems', 'Studded with Rubies; A Hundred Short Stories' and 'Marchen of Newer Days'.
Gargoyles Don't Cry
by Jill Trade
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Trevor was an inquisitive man. He was fascinated by science and obsessed with geology. His obsession stemmed from his mother, Clara. She had 12 children, each born in a different month, and Trevor was born in April to complete her calendar. Unfortunately, his mother died during childbirth and was never able to hold him in her arms. Her face, though, was etched on her tombstone. That’s how Trevor knew his mom, etched in rock. When they would go to visit her grave, Trevor thought that the stone was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. His father once told him that his mother desired to wear a piece of jewelry that contained all 12 birthstones, one for each one of her special gems.
Trevor devoted his life to finding a way to honor her legacy. His goal was to create beautiful stone gargoyles, each embellished with a birthstone, twelve in all, just like the stones his mother wished to wear. His would not be typical gargoyles, however, and he experimented in a home lab for many years to come up with a special concoction that would fulfill his vision.
One day Trevor met an attractive woman at the grocery store whose name was Ruby. Her name caught his attention. Trevor never realized there might be women out in the world named after the birthstones. He held on to Ruby’s number while he continued to work on his experiments.
Finally, Trevor found success. He could turn rats into stone from the inside out. The only problem was it had to be applied internally for it to work properly. Ingesting didn’t work because the stomach acids broke down the binding agents too much and the compounds passed right through. He found that if he inserted the serum directly into the rats by way of their reproductive parts, the serum could do its job. It quickly turned the rats’ cells into hardened masses that multiplied through the nervous system. Their blood backed up when the vascular system hardened and pooled in their hearts. That’s what eventually killed them, but not until most of their cells had turned to stone. In a six-pound rat, the process took about three hours.
Attaining his vision was so close. He just had to try it on an adult-sized human. He called Ruby.
She answered the phone and did recall meeting Trevor months ago at the supermarket. He told her he was now single and asked her on a date. With the excitement of him getting to try his first human experiment, Trevor became energized. On the date with Ruby he did all the right things. He said the right things. She was totally smitten by him. When he asked if she would like to come back to his place for drinks she eagerly agreed.
Once inside, Trevor set his trap to get Ruby vulnerable. Their kisses grew more and more passionate, and when it was time for the two to move as one, he excused himself to get protection. In the bathroom, he filled a condom with the serum. He put on a condom, then placed the serum-filled condom on top of that one. He poked a slight hole in the outer tip. When he emerged she was waiting, naked on his bed. He thrust the serum-filled condom between her spread legs, and imagined it squirting inside of her with each of his thrusts.
When he came back to the bed from another trip to the bathroom, Ruby lay under the covers. He asked how she was feeling. Great, she said. Trevor wanted to monitor her transformation, so he offered to massage her to sleep and she could leave in the morning. She was so taken by him she agreed. He rubbed her feet, neck and back until she was out. Then he sat in his chair in the corner of the room with the lights on. He took notes of anything unusual he saw, a twitching foot, an arm spasm, anything that would indicate something was taking place in her body.
Around 4:00 AM, Ruby awoke and saw Trevor sitting in the chair. She asked what was happening. He asked if anything was wrong. She told him her legs wouldn’t move and that her stomach hurt terribly. She tried to lift her arm and could barely get it an inch off the bed.
Nothing is wrong he told her. Everything is working correctly. She looked confused. She asked him to call her an ambulance but he assured her she was fine. He knew he had to move her into position before she became too stiff. He went to the bed and picked her up. He sat her naked body on the floor. Ruby began to cry. She couldn’t feel the floor underneath her. He struggled to push her legs apart. He had to get under her knee and push up with his shoulder to bend it. He did the same to her other one as she sat helpless and bawling. He put her arms on the floor behind her legs. He sat on the bed and watched and monitored her as she wept. After about eight hours the skin around her groin began to turn bluish-gray. The color slowly swept over her body. It crept up her torso and down her arms. It ran down her legs and soon covered her toes. As the last cells hardened, he wiped away her tears.
“Now, now, Gargoyles don’t cry,” he said. And with that, the whites of her eyes turned gray and her last breath exhaled.
Trevor couldn’t believe he had actually done it. He turned a woman named Ruby into a human gargoyle. Now to adorn her with her namesake. He went to the jewelry store that afternoon and purchased a necklace with a big dazzling ruby. He went home and hung it around her neck. It rested in between her stone breasts.
Now Trevor wanted the complete set.
After setting on his quest, he met an Opal and an Emerald at the gym. Then he discovered that strip clubs were breeding grounds for gemstone-named women. Once he had found a woman with a birthstone name, he would ask them on a date and take them back to his place. He used the double condom to inject his gargoyle serum into each of them. Every time they would wake up around 4:00 AM and he would start the placement process. He would position them in a way that would expose their most beautiful parts. And he told each and every one of them, “Now, now, gargoyles don’t cry,” as he wiped away their inevitable tears. Then he would make a trip to the jewelry store the same afternoon to buy their birthstone necklace. He placed them together in a row in his solarium.
Now despite Trevor’s success at strip clubs, he was still missing his Peridot, despite searching for seven months. One day, he ran into his jeweler at the bank who mentioned he’d been to a bachelor party the night before where a stripper named Peridot danced. When Trevor showed interest, his jeweler gave him the address of a place fifty miles away.
That night Trevor drove to retrieve his Peridot. At the club, a woman wearing only a light green g-string twirled on a pole. When she swung around and flipped her behind up, the word “Peridot” was tattooed on her lower back. That’s her, he thought. When her song was over, he asked for a private dance from Peridot and was led up a staircase and into a small room with wall-to-wall mirrors. Peridot soon emerged and began dancing, but Trevor told her he wasn’t just interested in her body, that he really wanted to get to know her. She paused her routine and started to show signs of interest towards him. He asked if she would be interested in going home with him where they could just talk. She agreed and got dressed. Trevor thought he was so slick for picking up his last birthstone.
At his home, Trevor went through his now well-practiced routine of trapping his victims. When they were ready for sex, he excused himself and prepped his deadly condom. When he emerged from the bathroom, naked with his protection on, three policemen burst through his front door. They told him to freeze and that he was under arrest for the disappearance of eleven young women. Trevor’s jaw hung open in shock.
Peridot guided her fellow police officers to the room with the gargoyles and the birthstone necklaces, which she had found while Trevor was in the bathroom. She recognized the faces as the missing women she had been investigating for the last several months.
The next day in the jailhouse, during Trevor’s interrogation, the police told him they’d had a credible tip from a jeweler that anytime a jewel-named woman went missing, Trevor visited the store to buy a necklace with the same name or stage name as the missing woman.
“Peridot was a sting," the interrogating officer told him, “and you fell right into our trap.”
Jill Trade is a married mother of three boys. She is a trained meat cutter, cosmetologist and formerly worked in finance. She enjoys passing time at the playgrounds writing poetry and short stories while her boys run out their energy. Her short stories have been published in Kaidankai: Ghost and Supernatural Stories and Blood Moon Rising Magazine.
The Mark of the Cat
by Linda Sparks
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
I have to admit Clara was beautiful with her black hair and green eyes. I admired her but did not wish to emulate her, and I believed we had become friends, if that is at all possible in my world. I guess I allowed emotions to interfere with the vibrations I was receiving. As an empath, I understand people more than they realize, but Clara was adept at shadowing her real intent.
I invited her to share an apartment with me as it seemed a good way to fit in, and, above all, I wanted to appear as though I was just one of the college crowd, despite the fact that I sometimes forgot to suppress my brilliance and received odd looks from the professors. It is true, I knew more than they did, but I had the advantage of time on my side. A great deal of time.
To appear to be a part of the younger scene, I even acquired a boyfriend. Jack was the typical jock and a bit impulsive. He drank too much, and had terrible grades. But he was good eye candy and I showed him like a prize feline. I did find it curious that there were dog shows for best in breed and other things, but I had not yet found a feline show and I much preferred cats to canines.
How stupid were they? Did they believe I was blinded by puppy love for this brawny jock whom I touted as feline? I had even helped Clara with a few of her exams in order for her to keep from dropping out for failing grades. Isn’t that what friends do?
Even if I decided to blind myself to my suspicions about the time they spent together, it seems they had forgotten my amazing ability to smell. Hyperosmia. He reeked of her perfume and she collected the nasty scent of him as well.
Decisions. Decisions. I had to decide if I would arrange a terminal end to their affair or apply a more fitting if not lasting punishment. I opted for the latter. I had the time. After all, I had been around since ancient times and had learned the craft well.
I considered my choice of species very carefully and felt an overwhelming sense of justification if I chose the rat, fondly remembering James Cagney in those gangster movies and how he punished his traitorous rats with machine gun fire. I was going for something with a bit more finesse. After all, she once was allegedly my friend.
I had the slithering patience of a serpent and so I waited for the appropriate opportunity. I invited Clara for a girl’s lunch where we could be seen by multiple witnesses and it would be obvious that we were besties.
Due to her beauty, Clara had quite an entourage and a following of admirers, male and female, yet she had chosen me for her friend. I connected with the thoughts of those fawning over her, then understood the overwhelming opinion was that Clara was being nice to me, out of kindness. I was a geek and my intelligence had collected a lot of resentment from those students who were flailing and failing in the university system. It wasn’t my fault they preferred to party over revving up those brain cells and studying a great deal more.
Not that I wasn’t beautiful in my own right. I just chose to alter my appearance in a way that made me appear to be bland and unnoticeable. My own form of camouflage which kept disturbances at a minimum. I was here for one purpose and that was to gather all the available knowledge that this educational system had to offer to me, and then I would move on. I did note that, particularly in the teaching of historic events, it was significantly flawed. I had lived during those times and what they were teaching was definitely written by the victors, and the slant told the story without much relation to actual historical events.
During our lunch, Clara was picking at her food under the pretense of not wanting to get fat. She didn’t want anyone to see her scarfing down a bunch of empty calories. Since she roomed with me and our food supply disappeared rapidly, I was confident Clara was not starving herself.
I ate exactly what I wished to eat and did not care who watched me. In fact, I had a great hunger for delicious things, food being one of them.
“I cannot eat another bite,” she sighed and pushed her nearly full plate away, surreptitiously glancing about the café’ to see if anyone noticed. Then she tensed, and I realized she had spotted him. I had already smelled him.
Jack was scrunched back into a corner seat, out of the way, but it was impossible for him to hide, large physical specimen that he was.
I had already cleared my plate and decided to finish Clara's meal as well, especially those morsels which I knew that she loved to eat. I detected the pattern of her breathing as it changed and knew I was pushing her buttons.
“Why did you want this special lunch today, Zelda?”
I smiled sweetly at her. Something I had practiced for a very long time. I cannot say that it was charming, but it did make me appear benign and gentle. All because of the position of the mouth. Remarkable.
The café’ was beginning to clear out as classes would begin soon and Mr. Jock in the corner would have even more difficulty maintaining his pseudo-invisible status.
I laughed softly. It must have startled her as she caught her breath and stared at me carefully, almost with a sense of alarm. Her biddable roommate was laughing strangely?
“I have a special girl secret to share with you,” I whispered and scanned the nearly empty room. Apparently, Jack had moved to the hall that led to the restrooms but he was still watching us.
She giggled. I now realized how much I hated that sound. She often used it like an expletive when she was trashing another downtrodden female who, of course, she claimed to pity.
Ah, so that’s how it is. I’m one of those girls to you.
“It’s about Jack,” I said.
She leaned in closely and I caught a gleam in her eyes. Was she really so certain about what I would tell her? Did she anticipate that I would spill tears over my broken heart because Jack had found me less desirable? Then would she sympathize and cluck her tongue and make nice with her bestie?
“Is everything okay?”
I watched the thoughts flash through her mind as she tried to assemble her facts, and it was obvious, she was having difficulties reconciling what she thought she knew with what I was possibly going to tell her.
“He asked me to marry him.”
A subtle sound came from the restroom area and I nearly smiled because I had not anticipated that Jack possessed such acute hearing.
“Really?” She nearly choked but managed to control herself at the last moment.
“Yes. I’d like you to be my maid of honor.”
I could feel the intense heat emanating from her body and the anger rushing to her cheeks, harsh words forming at the tip of her tongue. But she held her peace, just barely. I was impressed as she had rarely revealed such self-control.
I came to a conclusion that surprised me. Was it possible that she really cared about Jack? I had thought it was but a game to her, to steal her friend’s favorite shoes, her lipstick, and then her boyfriend.
She reached for her glass of water and then gulped it down. Then she grabbed her plate back from me and began devouring the remnants of her meal. I watched her in silence. I possess incredible patience.
When she had finished, she held the fork tightly in her hand and stared at it, as though deciding whether or not it would make a suitable weapon.
Deep breaths. She was either going to spill her guts or continue this charade. As an observer of human behavior, I was fascinated.
Another deep sigh as she struggled to control her response.
“Exactly when did he ask you to marry him?”
It sounded like an accusation and I was amused. Was she expecting me to haul out my date book where I might have logged time and date of this event? Perhaps share with her a clip from my diary?
“Right after I told him I was pregnant.”
Now she was choking and there was no water left in her glass so I slid mine over to her and pasted a concerned look upon my features. I could play this game too.
I watched carefully to see if steam would come out of her ears as she was definitely fuming hot.
“Oh? Because he got me pregnant? I don’t mind. I love Jack,” I said.
She choked again. I grew bored.
“He said that you wouldn’t put out. He said you were a virgin.”
I laughed softly. After all, we were friends and we had shared many confidences with the exception of this important one.
“I was,” I said.
She took my half full glass and threw it in the direction of the restrooms. It shattered. The café’ staff rushed to assess the commotion, but she waved them away and screamed at them to get away. They skittered back to the relative safety of the kitchen, ready to dial nine-one-one if necessary.
“Why would he be discussing that with you?” I asked, deciding to move things along. I deliberately furrowed my brow, to show how perplexed I was that my boyfriend would cross that line with my friend.
“Because he was sleeping with me,” she screamed. This time she threw both of our plates and they crashed spreading pieces all over the café’. Fortunately, all the other customers had left the scene.
“Clara? You’re my friend. Why would you sleep with my boyfriend? You know I am crazy about him.”
She turned to glare at me and her fists were tightly balled but she did not have the courage to strike me. That would have been an incredible mistake and perhaps she had enough survival instinct to realize that.
“Why would he choose you?” She spat out the words and spittle sprayed across the table hitting my skin but I did not brush it away as body fluids were essential ingredients in my plan.
“Why not?” I asked, and allowed my lip to tremble slightly.
“You are a geek. You dress terrible. You are smarter than the professors and no man wants to feel stupid. You demean people because you feel superior to them. You think he is just an ignorant jock who smells nice. And--you are ugly.”
I allowed a small sob to escape my lips knowing this might be expected of me in such an emotional situation.
“Look at me,” she said, and her eyes were fiery with her rage, as she gestured silhouetting her hair, her voluptuous body and her fabulous appearance.
Admittedly, she was beautiful, on the outside, but I understood that was not true of her interior and my assessment had just been confirmed. She was shaking with rage but there was nothing left to smash or throw so she stood up and flipped the table. My reflexes are excellent and I was able to move away.
I needed to work quickly now as an employee might well be dialing for the police.
“Let me give you an option here, Clara,” I said in a very calm voice. It must have jolted her back to reality because she stared at me in shock. Obviously, I was not presenting with the correct reaction she had anticipated. It was certain, she thought I would be a sodden mess right now, weeping at the betrayal by my boyfriend and my best friend.
“I don’t understand. You should be crushed. Yet you are calm and logical. I can tell you now, if he does marry you, which I very much doubt will happen, then it will not work out. You are cold, Zelda. Stone cold.”
“You have no idea,” I said, and I smiled but this time my mouth was more of a grin. Gone was the sweetness of the geek girl.
“You are crazy,” she said and she was shaking with rage again. She was accustomed to controlling people and I appeared to be beyond her talents.
“I will ask you only once. It is a choice I am giving you. Would you prefer a lizard or snake?”
She was totally baffled. A bead of sweat trickled from her forehead and I was warmed by her growing sense of alarm.
“Stop it! You are behaving like a fool. Why are you asking me about creepy crawly things? You know I hate all of them.”
“Then I shall make the decision for you if you do not choose,” I said.
She was shaking now. That instinctual thing again. I gathered the droplets of spittle from my face and I poised them on my fingertips and then I slipped those fingers into my mouth and swallowed the fluids. It was enough.
With my dominant left hand, I cast out, using that limb as a powerful wand and I looked into her eyes as the terror filled them.
An explosion of light and sound and she disappeared. My best friend altered.
Almost tenderly, I gathered the green lizard up from the floor and set her in the pocket of my coat where she would be secure.
There were screams coming from the kitchen so I knew I had to move quickly now. I slithered towards the restroom where I found the super jock, wide-eyed with shock and shaking his head in disbelief. He had not missed the magic show.
His face was ashen and drool oozed from his mouth, and just a little blood where, I suspect he had bitten himself. I reached out and gathered that blood with my finger and put that digit into my mouth, consuming his fluids. The big bad jock was trembling now. I have to admit this was my favorite part.
I hadn’t really expected begging. The man had no decency or pride.
“What are you?”
I did not have to explain myself to him. After all, he was the one who cheated and it is never a good idea to cheat a witch.
Snap! In an instant his large body had been transformed into a serpentine creature that was coiled but trying to stretch out as though he intended to make a run for it. Of course, he was totally incapable of running in this particular form, but he was, with his insatiable appetite, capable of performing the job I had planned for him.
I rustled in my pocket and brought out the brilliant green lizard. She was still wide-eyed and not yet acclimated to this new lifeform. Ha, ha, ha, I cackled. She would need to adapt quickly.
When she saw the snake, her instinct kicked in and she was flat out running in an attempt to escape.
For being newly changed, the serpent reacted well and swiftly glided across the floor after the fleeing lizard.
No need to prod him, as undoubtedly, he had missed his lunch while he was surveilling us.
She beautiful green lizard was very fast and chirping in a high-sound that revealed her panic, but, as I said, he was hungry.
He caught her and neatly devoured her.
Then he was moving sinuously toward the street in this open-air café, with great hopes of escaping into the natural world and perhaps finding himself a new mate or two.
“We cannot have that, Mister Jock,” I said, knowing full well he could understand me, even in his snake form.
He made it to the underbrush.
I, too, had not eaten enough at lunch.
I touched the small black mark upon my wrist, gently, lovingly, and then morphed into a my exquisite black feline self.
The sounds of sirens screamed in the air as the police officers neared the scene, not knowing what to expect.
They saw a black cat savagely shaking a snake to death before devouring it.
Linda Sparks is a poet and writer who has been published in various anthologies as well as online publications and podcasts. She has 21 published books. She also served as Editor for Valkyrie Magazine. She prefers writing horror including what she terms as horror poetry which is included in a few of her books. She also writes science fiction, dark fantasy and paranormal mystery. She enjoys her group, "Cemetery Squad" and they explore cemeteries and graveyards everywhere. Her children have told her one of the highlights of their childhood was having cemetery picnics. She grew up in Southern California and now lives with her family in Florida and uses the hurricanes as writing material.
by Maggie Nerz Iribarne
Listen to this story here on the Kaidankai podcast.
Ron struggled to unlock his new apartment’s cranky door. He wiggled the key, turning it upside down, right side up. Finally, he succeeded, revealing his new home - a dim space with drawn shades and a folding chair sagging in the middle of the main room. He sniffed a rancid, greasy smell. He opened the window, saw two teenage boys, skinny and hunched, smoking by a dumpster in the shifting late afternoon sunlight.
He turned away and saw the phone.
“What the hell?” he said, examining the heavy black landline with a rotary dial sitting on a shadowed ledge, a back wire dangling behind, untethered. He picked up its solid receiver, pressed it to his ear. The weight of it. They don’t make things like this anymore, his barely formed thought, interrupted by a feminine voice, sweet yet confident and helpful.
“Information, please?” she said.
“What? Who is this?”
“Information. How can I help you today, please?”
“I don’t - What?-Who are you?”
“I’m the ‘voice with the smile’-a Bell Telephone operator connecting from your local exchange. Would you like the date and time?”
The receiver grew heavy and hot in Ron’s hand.
“Alright,” he said.
“5:45 PM, Eastern Standard. Saturday, August 2, 1947, sir.”
Ron slammed the phone to its base, yanked at the cord, bundled up the whole contraption, and tossed it in the living room closet.
Waking sweaty in the night, tangled in sheets, his mouth foul and thick, he fought the urge to cry. Scenes from his failed marriage stalked him.
Where were you? Who do you think you are? Get outa my face.
At least he never hit her, never once, not with his hand, anyway.
He scanned through old messages on his iphone, screen glare creating a small respite from the darkness. He searched for signs of better days, when Marci’d text him halfway through his shift. How’s it going, hon? Missing you…
He rose from the bed and shuffled to the kitchen, drank a tall glass of sulphury water.
Unable to resist, he went to the closet, the phone.
Ron examined the old wire leading nowhere, slowly lifted the receiver, listened.
“I don’t know what kind of-prank -or -whatever-this is- but-“
“Pranks are not part of our script, sir,” she said, her voice joyful, steady.
Ron’s tongue lay thick and still in his mouth.
“Information, please? Please, sir, may I give you more information?”
“Well, do you perform, you know, other services?” His penis perked just saying this.
“No, sir, Bell Operators are not prostitutes. We are ‘paragons of perfection.’ ”
“Oh,” Ron said, penis deflating.
She sneezed. “My apologies for sneezing. May I help you with anything else, please?”
“Sneezing ain’t a sin, lady.”
“Bell operators are required to practice good nutrition, exercise, and hygiene, even in our leisure time. We must be eagerly friendly and composed at all times.”
“Huh,” said Ron. “Well, you wouldn’t like me then.”
“Do you need more information, sir, please?” she said.
He attempted to calm his jagged breath. Breathe in, breathe out.
“I’d like to know how to get my wife back,” he mumbled.
“That’s fine, sir, I can help you with that. First, I need to know how you lost her.”
“I was an ass, I-“
“Swearing is prohibited by our Design for Life program. It’s generally not useful to-“
“Okay, well. Jealous, I guess. She says I’m nasty. Controlling. ”
“Thank you, sir, for that information. Have you apologized? Apologies are necessary in all human relationships.”
“I did, every time-usually-but I drink and it always happens again. I threw a glass at her, and, well-“
“Alcohol consumption is forbidden by our Health-Appearance-Personality program. Alcohol is not helpful in the workplace or in private time as it makes operators mentally and physically unstable.”
“Yeah, it ain’t that easy to quit.”
“Do you have outside interests? Our specialists in our labs say, ‘People with interests seldom have time to be frustrated.’”
“Jesus,” Ron said, throwing the phone in an empty cardboard box, pushing it into the hall.
Morning. A hazy, bluish light filled the room. He needed to go out, hit the thrift store for some furniture, get some groceries. Day shift tomorrow. No booze tonight. He showered, hot water pelting his face. He fought a weary, internal pull to return to the bottle, the bed. He covered his tattooed chest with a tee shirt, slicked his hair back from his face, grabbed the keys. In the hall, he kicked the box with the phone, the receiver fell on its side on the floor.
“Goddamit-c’mon,” he called out into the grey quiet of the hallway. The lineup of closed doors watched, seemed to await his next move.
He crouched down on the floor, picked up the receiver, leaned into the cement wall.
“What about you? What’s your story?” he said.
“Bell telephone operators are forbidden from sharing personal-“
“C’mon, you must have something keeping you-in there? Do you get paid?”
“We’ve been paid since the war ended, but-“ her voice trailed off. “We are now receiving counseling to help divert our attentions from salary. The Bell Telephone Design for Life program tells us, ‘Unions instill in operators a lack of respect for authority and result in independence of action by the individual.’ “
“My, uh, Marcie kicked me out-why don’t you get yourself-I dunno-outa there-somewhere?”
A fuzzy silence played in his ear.
“Information, please?” she said, her confident tone cracking a little, “Please, sir?”
He hugged his knees to his chest, cradling the receiver between his ear and shoulder.
“Will I be a better man?” Ron whispered. “Can I change-?”
“Based on past performance, sir, this seems unlikely. May I give you any other information, please?”
Ron dragged the phone outside to the dumpster, heaving it over the edge, hearing it crack. The voice of the operator persisted.
“Information, please?” she repeated, fading as he slumped to his car and drove away.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is living her writing dream in a yellow house in Syracuse, New York. She writes about teenagers, witches, the very old, bats, cats, priests/nuns, cleaning ladies, runaways, struggling teachers, and neighborhood ghosts, among many other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.