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Walks out to the deer stand were always dark. Had to get there well before sunrise, before legal shooting hours, without being detected. This morning, the night sky was clouded over. No stars. No moon. Fully black. I saw only in shades of gray. All rods and no cones. If I didn’t know the path by heart, no doubt I would have gone stumbling off into the thick woods.
But knowing the path provided only so much comfort. Me, being an adult and not a child still afraid of the dark, provided less. Being a doctor, a woman of rational scientific mind, more so but not much. Carrying a gun, surprisingly little.
I rolled my feet over the leaves and dirt, carefully applying and ready to lift up my weight if I felt a fragile stick under my sole. My dad taught me how to do that. How to walk slow, heel to toe, anticipating things that might crack under my foot and changing my step before they did. He taught me to hunt, forced me out here on these cold fall days against my will. And I, being a doctor, sworn to do no harm, should have let this tradition die along with him, in a foul bed in a filthy trailer home on the outskirts of town. I was better than this. Still, I trudged on, wary of the waiting sticks along the path.
I wasn’t watching out for wolves. When it growled that bassy throttled rumble like a Harley Davidson in the distance, my foot froze in place. My near-blind eyes searched the darkness, trying to distinguish between sight and hallucination. Two thin yellow pinpricks hovered over the path, too fearless to be a deer and too tall to be a fox or coyote. No. This was a timber wolf. I’d seen their tracks before. Seen them sprint in packs across frozen-over knocked-down cornfields in the distance. But I’d never seen one this close. And none of them had ever starred me down like this one was.
“Whoa, boy,” I stuttered, from the chill or the fear, I couldn’t say. “Same team. Me and you. We’re just two predators, going about our business.”
I heard him lick his chops. Wet, slurping noises. And was that his outline, his gray coat a shade brighter in the black? Those unblinking yellow eyes showed no sign of dissuasion. They fixed me in my place, my right heel touching the ground but the toe of my boot still up. Then the eyes turned away and it was as if two dim candles were blown out. The wolf crashed through the underbrush and then was gone.
“Two predators, going about our business,” I repeated to myself and let the rest of my right foot roll to the ground.
When I got settled into the deer stand, sunrise was still a promise. Shadows still a guarantee. I hoisted my rifle up the towline until it was in my gloved hands. I’d wait until legal shooting hours before loading it. It was a rule, clearly printed in the DNR manual, and I liked rules.
I liked an ordered world. I liked a fair world. An honest world. It was one of those lessons learned from my parents by what they didn’t do, rather than what they did. They were the anti-example that launched me down a path of education and excellence. Their failures were my roadmap to success. So why had this habit of my dead drunken father stuck with me?
I had nothing but time to think about it while I waited for the first soft light of sunrise to come upon the forest, so I thought.
And the answer came to me surprisingly fast. Because this was fair. Because this was honest. Because even I knew there was no such thing as doing no harm. Because if I bought meat from the grocery store, the animals would be just as dead. Because even if I switched to a vegetarian or vegan diet, habitat would still be turned to crops. Because the wet work of gutting a deer didn’t bother me. Not with my line of work. Because I had plenty of memories that made killing a deer tame by comparison. Because success only came after rounds and rounds of failures. Because I hadn’t saved them all.
I prided herself in separating work from leisure. Working was hard enough while in the ER. No reason to bring that home. No reason to churn those memories around while trying to sleep after another eighteen-hour shift. I’d gotten good at compartmentalizing all of that. Of tucking those memories into bed like obedient children.
But out here, with nothing but me and the shadows and my mind? The kids were up and playing when they should be asleep.
I could almost see them down there in the clearing, between the pine saplings and bushes. The kids. My lost kids. Not any biological children, but those I mothered by scalpel and gauze and sutures and drugs. Some were actual children. Pediatrics, I mean. More were adults. All of them dead now. The ones who lived seemed to know to stay in bed after mommy tucked them in. It was the dead who rambled.
And could I actually see them? The same way as that pair of yellow eyes I’d seen earlier? Were they down there on the forest floor? The little boy who’d drank an entire bottle of toilet cleanser? The twenty-something heroin overdose? The seventy year old suicide? My silent lips still cussed out the EMTs who brought these lost causes to my door instead of going straight to the morgue. But I had a duty. I had my stupid, precious, pedantic oath. I had to try.
They were down there, blanketed by the dying night, lying down in the tall grass as still as I’d left them. Some with catheters in their arms, EKGs glued to their chests, wads of bloody gauze stuffed in their open wounds. Nobody died pretty. Even the black of pre-dawn couldn’t hide that. My father was no exception.
That summer, I’d gone to his trailer home. After a minute of knocking and listening to TV babble coming through the thin metal door, I went inside. He was in his old recliner, surrounded by a horde of empty beer cans, all standing as if he were their messiah preaching from a mount. He was long dead. I still dragged his slack body off the chair and cleared out a spot on the soiled carpet where I could perform CPR. He wasn’t so far gone as to have gone stiff, which told me maybe I could restart him. I should have known better. I’m a fucking doctor for Christ’s sake. I knew the survival rates. I knew what he’d have been if I’d managed to prime his heart like a dry pump back to life. He could have a lead role in Veggie Tales, but nothing else. Still, I compressed his chest, broke his ribs, called nine one one, put my lips to his, ignored the slime of death on his lips, inflated his inert lungs, and cried and screamed over his corpse.
The asshole. The drunk. The prick. The loser. He was down there, amongst the others who’d died on my ER beds. I saw him lying there, still in his recliner, surrounded by beer cans. They glistened amongst the frosted-over reeds of glass, reflecting what little light the forest had to give.
He sat up. The whine and clunk of the La-Z-Boy undeniable in the cool quiet of the early morning. He coughed and spat as if death were nothing more than phlegm in his throat. Others moved too. I heard them before seeing them, just as I would have heard a deer stepping through sticks and brush, just as I would have heard unruly kids crawling out of bed while I was trying to sleep. The boy turned blue from toilet cleanser. The addict. The self-euthanized old man. The family from the DUI car wreck just last week. The woman with the flu who should have lived, who had no good fucking reason just to keel over while I tended to other patience. The anemic. The sick. The mauled. The murdered. They all rose up from their beds there in the bushes and weeds. They found their feet, uncertain and awkward, but inevitably. And they moved towards the base of the deer stand.
“Just a dream. Just focus on the here and now. Just do your job. Do your fucking job,” I clamped my eyes shut and muttered a well-practiced mantra.
When I opened them, the forest was a little brighter. Sunrise was a little closer. The ghosts were all gone.
No deer came by that morning. Nothing in the forest stirred. Not even the squirrels. A few birds fluttered overhead. A few sang their songs and I felt ignorant for not knowing their names. This evening, after the sun went down, the whippoorwills would sing their onomatopoeian name, the only name I knew, and only because they sang it. Maybe when I retired, I could learn them all. Have one of those little books and a pair of binoculars by my window. That sounded peaceful.
I usually hiked back in for lunch around eleven and would then hike back out around two for the afternoon hunt. Today, every time I looked down the stand, I saw places where the grass was laid flat. Beds, I figured, but wasn’t so confident to call them deer beds.
I shivered from toes to teeth when the sun sank behind the trees. My muscles ached from staying in the stand all day. My stomach was tight under the layers of clothes. My eyes were heavy, but not so much as to overcome my discomfort. Another hour in the stand. Then I could come down. Right after dawn and right before dusk were the best times to be in the stand. That’s when the deer were most active. That’s what my father taught me. The loaded rifle was in my lap. When legal shooting came to an end, then I’d unload it and climb down, but not before.
Light slowly retreated, and I welcomed it. Because frankly, by now, I could care less about bagging a deer. Because I didn’t want to deal with tracking one down and gutting it in the dark. Because all I really wanted was to go home where it was warm, eat a big meal, and sleep. I worked too hard for this to be my recreation. Why the hell did I come out here to begin with?
Still, I wouldn’t leave the stand before it was time. It was a rule. It was rational. I’d spent all day in the stand. It made no sense for me to leave now, with just a half hour of prime hunting left. My teeth rattled around behind my lips, because if I chattered with my mouth open, a deer might hear and head off in other directions. Because I was out here to do a job. I owed the balance of the universe to be here, acting the predator during the intermission from my stage role as savior. Still, I welcomed the fast-falling evening tide.
It came, perpetually, unstoppably, unrushed, and indifferent to my will. The forest went dim, but not yet dark. I let my heavy eyes fall shut. Let my ears do the work for a little while. The sounds of the forest had stories to tell too. A few unnamable birds sung. The sound of the breeze moving through the trees arrived before the push of air itself. My own slow, regulated breathing turned it all into something like a song. Rhythmic and melodic. Peaceful. Restful. Orderly.
The grass stirred below, out of sync with the breeze. I opened my eyes.
Twilight had beset the forest floor faster than I’d expected, as if minutes instead of seconds had passed while I closed my eyes. The dim made room for dread. That gap between vision and imagination blurred again, melded into one inseparable thing. Blinking did no good. The children were out of their beds again, playing in the dark.
There, amongst the milkweed, was the septuagenarian with the bullet hole in his head. And over by the sparse jack pine saplings was the woman who died commonly from the common flu. And the family the firemen pulled from the crumpled Subaru laid over by the copse of maples. A whippoorwill sung over the body of the kid with the stomach full of cleanser. They were all back.
A quiet chime from my watch told me that was it. The sun had sunk low enough. Legal shooting hours was over. It was time to unload the rifle. Time to move my cramped limbs. Time to climb out of the stand. Time to go home and leave these woods, maybe forever. In the dim I could see the path to the trail that would take me back to the car that would take me back home and back to society. Back to all the comforts I couldn’t remember why I abandoned. My cold shaking hands worked the rifle’s bolt action. One by one, round after round fell into my lap until there were none left to gut from the rifle. I pocketed them, closed the bolt of the rifle, lowered the weapon on the towline, and made my way down.
At the bottom of the stand, all those ghosts weren’t so easy to spot. The tall grass was hiding them now. And all for the better. They were nothing to concern me. Arrant thoughts of an unbusy mind. Best to forget about them, put them back to bed where they belonged, and get on with life. I recovered the rifle and went to head home, my feet by habit rolling heel to toe to keep quiet as I walked.
One step along the path, I realized I still held one round in my gloved hand. Its brass caught what was left of the day’s light, shining yellow in my palm. Odd, but nothing to be done about. I clinched it and took another step.
A twig snapped, loud and sharp in the otherwise quiet woods.
Was it the wolf there standing in my path some fifty yards off? I could see its ashen coat against the forest darkness, turned broadside to me. His thick, neckless head was aimed my way, sensing me with snout and ears and eyes all at once.
Or was it my father, just twenty yards out, as he worked the arm of his recliner with that mechanical snap and clack of the bars and springs inside of the filthy old thing? When he came to his feet, he made more noise kicking over empty beer cans than snapping sticks. It didn’t bother him to knock over all those empties. He had another in his pale dead hand.
“Hey there, baby girl,” dad said through clumsy lips. “What are you doing all the way out here? Shouldn’t you be working?”
“Fuck you, dad,” I said back.
“Ma’am?” a woman called from over by the jack pines. “Could I have a glass of water? Please?”
“Just… Ma’am, you’ll have to wait,” I said to the woman as dad took a step forward and kicked over more cans.
“My tummy hurts real bad,” a boy said as a whippoorwill took flight over his shoulder. He barfed into tall grass.
“Help,” the mother of the three in the wrecked Subaru called. The station wagon’s hazard lights blinked yellow and off in the copse of maples. The smell of antifreeze and brake pads and blood mixed with dried out leaves and earth. “Please. Somebody. My kids…”
“Shouldn’t you be helping them?” dad, one finger peeled from the can to point around the forest, said. “Aren’t you supposed to help people?”
“Fuck you, dad,” I told him, and I found the rifle was no longer slung over my shoulder but cradled in my hands.
A wolf howl pierced the cool night as sharp as a stiletto.
“Why didn’t you help me?” the heroin junky staggered out from behind the stand. “I didn’t mean to die. I never wanted this. Couldn’t you help?”
“Help me!” the woman called from the car wreck.
“I think I’m sick,” the boy slurred as he dropped the bottle of cleaner into the grass.
“I didn’t mean it,” said the old man as gun smoke rolled out of the side of his head.
The cartridge danced in my cold fingers, as if it willed itself against being controlled.
“Why couldn’t you help me?” dad said.
The bullet tip found the open action. My numb fingers shoved it in. My palm racked shut the bolt.
“I thought you were some big shot doctor,” dad scoffed at me.
Others called too, but they were all out of focus now, visually and audibly. My experience funneled down as narrow as the view through the scope, centered on my father’s heart. The gunshot silenced all the voices, instantly and ongoing as the echo made its way through the trees.
When I lowered the rifle, dad was gone. All my other lost patients too. It was just me again, and further along the path, the wolf. He still stood broadside, his light gray coat visible and unmarred in the chill evening light. He let out a short growl, not aggressive this time, but as if to acknowledge me.
“Never mind me, boy,” I said. “Just a fellow predator like yourself.”
The wolf pounced off the path and disappeared. I slung the rifle and started for home.
Joe Prosit writes sci-fi, horror, and psycho fiction. “Machines, Monsters and Maniacs” is a self-published collection of sixteen of his short stories. You can find it on Amazon or at his website, at www.JoeProsit.com. If you’re an adept stalker, you can find him on one of the many lakes and rivers or lost deep inside the Great North Woods. Or you can just follow him on Twitter: @joeprosit.
Originally published September 28, 2022
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Detective Karl grabbed his gun and a flashlight, pulled open the trap door, and ascended the ladder to the attic. Something had been making noise up there for the last three nights. At first, he had dismissed the sound as nothing more than the house settling, but there had to be some other reason for the constant thumping.
What Karl found would have made a lesser man run, screaming in horror.
A blood-covered apparition floated above a box of old magazines. Karl noted that the translucent ghost was dressed in an old-style police uniform, something out of the ‘90s. It took all of Karl’s will to resist gagging at the sight of the gaping hole in the man’s face.
The ghost smiled and shook what was left of its head, “It’s about time you came up here. You’ve wasted quite a bit of time. We should get going as soon as possible.”
“Who are you? What are you talking about?” Karl asked with surprising calmness.
“I’m Officer Bill Newman . . . or, I used to be. I’ve come to help you solve the Blue Murders.”
In the last twenty-five years, nearly a dozen policemen had disappeared. No trace had been found of any of them. The most recent had been over a year ago. Karl had known Sandra Bates; she was a strong and accomplished officer. The two of them had met during an awards banquet where they both received commendation for exceptional service.
“I’m familiar with the files. Your disappearance was in 1997. Why haven’t you come back and helped earlier?”
The ghost shrugged. “I don’t know. I only became aware of my existence a few days ago. At first, I thought it was still 1997 but after checking out the precinct, I learned the truth. It was there that I first saw you and noticed the award on your desk. I decided you’re the right man for the job. You have a certain . . . confidence about you.”
“Why’d you make me come up here? Why didn’t you just appear in my living room?”
“It takes a great deal of energy to make myself visible. I have very limited capabilities in the living world. Light tends to drain me. I’ve been building up strength.” As if on cue, the apparition faded slightly.
Karl was too good at his job to not try to figure out as much as he could about this amazing encounter. “How were you making that noise?”
“I’m really not sure of all the rules,” explained Newman. “I can’t touch or move anything that has ever been alive. I pass through wood and paper, but I can pick up stones or metal. I’ve been dropping this tiny rock to get you to come up here.” He opened his hand revealing a pebble.
Before Karl could ask another question, the spirit held up his other hand. “We don’t have time for this. You need to go to the basement of 1125 57th Avenue as quickly as possible. It’s an abandoned apartment building. Come in quiet. No sirens. Park a few blocks away. We don’t want to scare the killer away.” The ghost faded even more.
“How do you know the killer will be there?”
Before Newman could answer, he disappeared. The pebble clattered to the floor.
Karl knew he should have called for backup but he also knew that no one would have believed his story. He would handle things by himself.
One faint beam of light filtered through a tiny window providing the only light in the basement. Karl activated the flashlight on his phone.
He had checked the files during the drive. Officer Newman had disappeared along with his wife and young child. Newman’s was the only case that involved family members or any additional victims. His disappearance was not officially part of the Blue Murders but now it appeared that it should have been.
“You need to come this way,” said Newman’s ghostly shape as it emerged through a warped wooden door that sat, slightly ajar, on the far wall. He disappeared back through the door, beckoning Karl to follow.
With great effort, Karl pulled the door open. Its rusty hinges fought and groaned against his effort, but eventually, he was able to slither through the opening. A hallway extended into the darkness.
“This way,” said Newman. “Follow my voice. I used to play here when I was a kid. These tunnels were part of an abandoned subway project.”
Karl followed Newman’s voice until they reached a dead end. A cement door with huge iron hinges blocked the path. A heavy metal bar was wedged against the door, locking it shut from this side.
“The door’s very heavy, but if we work together, we should be able to open it,” said Newman. “Since it’s made of cement, I can’t pass through it.”
“Why would the murderer be in there?”
“Not the murderer,” replied the ghost, “But everything you will need to solve the mystery.”
Karl glanced at his phone. There was no reception. “Okay,” he said as kicked the metal bar aside. He grabbed the door’s iron handle and pulled. With great difficulty, the door began to slowly slide open.
Newman appeared beside him and joined in the effort. The door opened with ease. A stale stench assaulted Karl’s nose.
“Is super-human strength part of your rules?”
“In here,” said Newman, ignoring the question. He floated through the doorway.
Karl sighed deeply and followed.
“Oh, my God.”
Scattered throughout the large chamber were over a dozen bodies in varying degrees of decomposition. Leaning against the wall to his left was the body of a young woman wearing a New York City Police uniform. The other bodies were also wearing police uniforms. Karl had found the victims of the Blue Murderer.
“I’ll go get some help. We should be able to find some clues.”
“Wait,” said Newman. “There is something else you have to see. Go to the back of the room.”
There, Karl found two more bodies, barely more than skeletons. One was a woman and the other a child.
He turned toward Newman who still hovered by the door.
“Is this your family?”
“Yes,” replied the ghost. “I didn’t mean to do it. I was under so much stress. I cracked. When I returned to my senses, I brought them here but I couldn’t take the guilt. I blew my head off.” He motioned toward another body laying a short distance from the woman and child.
“What? You did this? What about the rest of the murdered policemen?”
“It’s because I was a policeman that my family died. It’s not fair. Why should my family die while you get to go on with your arrogant, happy lives? You don’t deserve any award; you deserve the same fate as my family. They all deserved it.”
Suddenly, the ghost disappeared through the opening. Karl ran toward the doorway but Newman slammed the door shut. Karl threw his shoulder against the cement barrier but the door would not budge. Additional attempts to push the door open yielded nothing but a sore shoulder.
Karl stared at the door. His cell phone was still not getting a signal. He began searching for a way out but even as he did so, he knew he wouldn’t find one. The Blue Murderer had reached beyond the grave to take another victim.
James Rumpel is a retired high school math teacher who has greatly enjoyed spending some of his free time turning a few of the odd ideas circling his brain into stories. He lives in Wisconsin with his wonderful wife, Mary.
Originally published September 20, 2022
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
Lying in bed, snuggling comfortably under a cloud of soft Egyptian cotton,
blinking the night away, I smile and ponder the witching hour; the sixty-minutes between
3:00am – 4:00am when human brains release melatonin.
I snuggle deep into my pillow-top mattress, as I wonder which historically
powerful institution is behind the world’s oldest propaganda campaign.
“The witching hour, black magic, melanin, melatonin. The pigment responsible for
my beautiful, golden-brown skin, isn’t the same hormone responsible for human
sleep/wake cycles”, I think while yawning the last grains of slumber away.
Inhaling and slowly reaching my arms overhead, I squirm like an infant after its
first nights’ sleep. I then stretch, not with happy contentment, but as if I can shake a
profound sense of emptiness, loneliness, and melancholy.
I silently repeat, “I live a limitless life,” one of my many morning affirmations.
Exhaling, I close my doe-eyes, wrap my arms around my shins, and affirm, “I am
a phenomenal woman.”
Awake before the birds; it is my norm: greet the sun, carve out the same
seventy-eight minutes daily to watch its golden rays sweep from east to west.
It is a simple pleasure, and self-care: simple, convenient, and imperative to be
myself with myself.
But not today, not this December 10th.
Ordinarily I would, and today I should, especially as it is my birthday. But I will not, and I do not, because this day is not just my birthday: it is promotion to Partner Day -the one in which I materially realize my success after years of hustle and grind stocked with endless code switching to collect paychecks.
I have it great, much better than most, but I am unhappy. My heart isn’t broken, it is lonely; my friends are few and far between; and pride appears to be a best frenemy. I have the bluest of the successful career woman blues. Bluer than indigo, my blues is damn near black.
“Perhaps I feel undeserving of my blessings,” I think when the clock slowly strikes my magic hour, 4:00am, the exact hour equal to the date of my birth, December 10th.
A deep sigh escapes my gut as I ask aloud, “is it worth it?”
“Happy Star Cycle Day,” sings Leiza (L-e-i-z-a), my trusty best friend and Paralegal. We have been friends since starting at the firm ten years ago, except Leiza has less tenure. She took a two-year sabbatical to find herself by studying transcendental meditation and yoga at an ashram in India.
I smile and pretend to curtsey, and in return Leiza pretends to curtsey as is our custom inter-office.
“Star cycle cocktails,” Leiza suggests too enthusiastically making it evident she has something up her designer silk sleeve.
“As long as we keep it low key,” I reply while strutting away to attend the second of many meetings.
Eight hours into my day -literally my day -my birthday.
“I would rather not attend my 1 st Partners Luncheon”, I think as I freshen my lipstick, then apply hand cream.
“Except that firm shell games move quickly, as quickly as Louboutin debuts the next seasons line of pumps,” reminds my ego in return. Standing, I measure the accoutrements of my slightly larger, more stylishly furnished Baby Partner office. Glancing out the window, I notice a perfectly circular birds’ nest perched, almost hidden, deep within an azalea bush.
“I almost overlooked it”, I think while gazing at the azalea with its wild appearance.
Like poisonous arrows, its branches grow in every direction; its flowers are plump like nickels with tiny specks of pollen; and its buds are oversized, pale, spotted, nuclear ladybugs.
I stand frozen pondering the unkempt, hardy azalea, with thick branches, waxy leaves of varying shades of green: chartreuse, forest, hunter, and dozens-upon-dozens of ivory and pale pink flowers and flower buds. Batting my eyelashes several times, forcing my eyes to adjust to the low winter sun, I see it: the hummingbird! Ruby throated with golden green feathers, a royal purple
underbelly, and tracking me with a solitary tiny black eye.
Awestruck, I suddenly remember my solo trek to Cuba the summer before starting law school and diving headfirst into adulting. The colors of the hummingbird mirror the colors of the Island: vibrant, colonial, warm, and at the same time, cool. Almost as if on cue, Leiza sashays in through the slightly ajar door to deliver a brief. She opens her mouth, but instead of speaking she begins gasping as if an invisible noose has tightened and is crushing her windpipe.
“Are you okay,” I stammer.
Nodding affirmatively, she softly mutters “a hummingbird in the winter is a good omen, and by the way, your aura is expanding.”
Thirteen hours into my day -literally my day -my birthday.
My promotion to Partner was announced first thing this morning. But my joy is stifled because a client and Basil, my mentor, will not stop posturing.
“As it is, my office is not large enough to accommodate four adult-size individuals,” I think while rubbing my temples, trying to taper a pending migraine.
Dave, not his actual or stage name, the rock star client, closely resembles a combative antiquated rooster, he is too fat to be plump, and has a face speckled with skin tags deserving dermatological intervention.
“Why is he attired like a soft rock has been,” I wonder as I allow my eyes full displeasure of taking in the sight of his ill-fitting, polyester leisure suit and white patent leather shoes. My head pounds as the meeting drones, making it progressively more difficult to take Dave seriously.
As the meeting adjourns, I stand quickly, and firmly grasp his hand to shake when he boldly suggests, “I prefer my accountants and attorneys to close deals over drinks.”
Recognizing annoyance, Basil counters with “hey, let’s detour to Speakeasy – the retro-styled conference room stocked with alcoholic beverages aplenty.”
I bite my tongue fighting the urge not to advise that Speakeasy has enough physical space to accommodate an aging, overweight rock star in a hideous leisure suit.
If ever I feel subject to sensory overload, this is the moment. My ears are ringing, and my eyes are sensitive as if arrested by a sudden camera flash. Moreover, the air within my office feels oddly still. Not hot, claustrophobic or confined. Rather, it is calm almost cozy and as if Mother Nature and Father Time are harmoniously whispering, “hush child, be still,” and the entire universe is listening.
Smiling to myself, I take two quick steps towards my desk and then see it: a large black butterfly with yellow strip markings on its long narrow, lazily flapping wings. I forgot Leiza, who has been surprisingly less annoyed by Dave, was present until I hear her whisper, “A black and yellow butterfly is a great omen, it symbolizes change and transformation …, wow…, your aura is expanding again.”
Fourteen hours into my day -literally my day -my birthday.
At this moment, my primary thought is, “I do not recall promising Leiza that star cycle cocktails were definite,” as I casually stroll out the lobby in the direction of our favorite wine bar. It is a beautiful December afternoon; the exact temperature is somewhere near
the mid 70’s; the sun appears endless; the sky has streaks of pink and orange ribbon-like clouds, and the air is pregnant with the scent of pansies, violas, snapdragons, petunias, and sweet alyssum.
“Mama would call these eye-catching winter annuals,” I think as I unconsciously slow my pace and allow my thoughts naturally began to sync with my footsteps. With each step the simple pleasure of walking collides with the realization that I am less than happy on a day when I should be overjoyed.
Not wishing to taper whatever “low key” celebration Leiza has planned, I mentally admonish melancholy settling sneakily into my pores, bones, and consciousness. Quickening my strut, I silently repeat, “I am the creator of my pathway, and I am
stepping into greatness,” another of my many affirmations, smile perfectly and enter the wine bar.
I take a seat at a bistro table furthest away from all other patrons. After comfortably crossing, then uncrossing my legs, I scan the appetizer menu. Plopping into the seat across from me, Leiza playfully snatches the menu and announces, “today your money is no good here, so says Basil,” and as if by magic, all my favorites--calamari, escargot, carpaccio, bruschetta, and a bottle of Bordeaux-- are formally arranged on the small table.
Shortly after chiding, “is this low key enough,” while splaying her hands game-show style, Leiza eyes widen larger than saucers, as she whispers, “a ladybug is on your lapel, which is an omen for success …, your aura…, is so bright right now, and it is
It has been a long day -literally my day -my birthday.
No, it has been an exceptionally long and grueling day, and although I have never had a job requiring physical labor, I am certain I am exhausted, and my body feels like I have dug coal non-stop, for sixteen-hours. I slowly lift myself out of the bathtub filled with what was bubbles and water hot enough to boil lobster, then collapse, alone on my birthday into my king-size bed. Too tired to feel sorry for myself, I whisper, “congratulations on a job well done,” then wish myself, “happy birthday,” and drift off to sleep.
I awaken with a startle, feeling disoriented, and uncertain of whether I am in my own home. Lying in bed, I will myself to calm down, and it hits me! The scent of cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper, and oranges all mingled together like strange supernatural, piping hot chai on a cold afternoon. It is a familiar scent, too familiar, timeless, and classy. It is unique, and earthy like a fragrantly sudden, and violently showy rainstorm. It is also perplexing because it is masculine, too masculine, too familiar, and too
out of place.
“I am home alone,” I call out to a hollow empty room.
By instinct my ego, with more control of the moment than I, responds, “you’re not dating.”
With this knowledge settling into my bones, the hair on the back of my neck rises, as goose bumps creep up my arms and down my spine. I struggle to keep paranoia at bay, but it’s difficult because I am not dating, and there is obviously someone in my home carrying this scent! My heart races uncontrollably, beads of sweat form on my forehead and my core body temperature drops a few degrees with each passing second.
I initially think I am on the cusp of a very vivid nightmare, one in high-definition technicolor, and where I am obviously in the incredibly early stages of sleep.
Yet, I am awake!
“That is, it”, I think as I loudly utter, “it’s a nightmare which obviously began before my brain released melatonin.”
I remind myself that “these are coherent thoughts.” However, logic is abruptly interrupted and replaced by full blown paranoia when a gentle breeze, more akin to a cosmic caress, wafts through my bedroom.
“That breeze should be punctuated with humidity interrupted by state-of-the-art, energy efficient, zoned air conditioning,” I think aloud. “But it’s pregnant with the same intoxicating, earthy, sleep disturbing, masculine scent,” I continue, aloud, as my heart races around my chest cavity.
Lying in bed, fearfully willing myself to remain awake, I mentally struggle to remember the name of my Doorman - a fixture in my retro-nuevo, upscale, gentrified (translation: rehabbed) building. He is an older man of West African ancestry with smooth, dark skin like mahogany. Always pleasant, never overly solicitous, I inherited him, or he inherited me, when I bought my loft. He is also prone to offering compliments whenever I wear bold and vivid colors or wrap my head in the style of Continental African women. Not flirty compliments, but compliments which make me feel in control of my cultural narrative.
Ordinarily not being able to recall the name of a stranger in the middle of the night is not cause for alarm and does not warrant lying awake before daybreak. However, being unable to place a scent when scents normally evoke vivid memories with amazing clarity, has me rattled!
“Am I hallucinating, about to have a seizure, suffering a brain aneurysm or a stroke,” are my repeated thoughts as I toss and turn.
Struggling to resolve what I assume can only be a mixture of exhaustion, stress, and a more taxing case of the successful career woman blues, I shut my eyes and engage in a round of meditative breathing: A … 2 … 3 … 4 … B … 2 … 3 … 4 … C … 2 … 3 …4, and slowly drift into the first stage of fitful sleep.
Without warning, I hear it …, with clarity…, softly, but a deep, rich baritone: the voice belonging to my deceased Father. I hear my name being called: “Guigi.” Initially bewildered, I prick my ears to make certain. Then, I hear it again, a decibel higher, but still the same deep, rich baritone: “Guigi.”
Anticipation and a touch of recognition force me to open my eyes widely, expecting to see the full-body apparition of my Father.
But when I do, I only see the space more commonly known as my bedroom. With my eyes darting, and my eyelids batting at the speed of a cameras shutter, I see my immaculately decorated, austere, bedroom. I recognize potted zizi plants, my bureau, my full-length mirror, but no one, just space.
Crying involuntary, silent tears, I turn completely inward, make meaningful eye contact with my soul, and begin tapping into the core fiber of my being. I take several more deep cleansing breaths, and for the first time in an exceptionally long time, slowly
and intensively, peace settles over my being, aligns my chakras, shifts my energy, and allows me to begin to heal.
12:10PM - ONE YEAR LATER
With vivid memories of Guigi’s fondness for promptness, Leiza makes a mental note to browse “duty-free” before her return flight, then casually joins the group of non- citizens standing idly in the passport inspection line. The Tocumen International Airport is highly efficient, more efficient than Leiza anticipates, and the atmosphere is charged with energy.
Agents from Customs & Immigrations scrutinize everyone, including senior citizens eager to pass security checkpoints; and a rowdy pack of bachelors who suddenly decide to drop their frat boy routine after being denied admittance into the sterile lounge.
Leiza deftly wheels her sensibly packed carry-on towards the motorized footway and giggles, not in glee, but in pain because she has not worn sensible, travel friendly shoes.
Cautious to inch and stand as far right as possible, allowing hurrying passengers to snake past without crushing her swollen toes, she marvels at the contrasts: grey sky, white sand, blue/green sea, trans-continental diversity, and a cosmopolitan Miami-
Of the pair, Leiza, a former resident of an Indian ashram, is a new aged, free spirit. Yet, she did not quit a career, pack, and permanently move to another country … on a whim! And not just any country: Panama, a country so small it is little more than a strip of land, barely an island, linking Central and South America; a country so small modern maps and globes depict it as a grain of sand between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
“Talk about casting fate to the wind,” she whispers aloud to no one in particular.
Leiza is so entrenched in thoughts of island sand, seashells, and sandcastles that she forgets to take a step when the motorized footway deposits her in an alcove leading to baggage claim and is jostled forward by a man wheeling a luggage cart.
“Sorry for that,” he barks as suitcases topple to the floor.
Stopping to better scan the crowd, Leiza succumbs as a combination of instinct and gravity push her forward through another dizzying parade of people.
Walking in pace with other travelers, she obsessively digs in her bag for sunglasses, and is muttering “sensible shoes, sensible shoes,” when she suddenly finds herself standing before what she assumes is sunlight reflecting off the sea. But the intense beam of light is not that of the sun, nor is it a reflection, it is the aura of her best friend, Guigi, magnified by a mural depicting a ruby-throated hummingbird drinking azalea nectar.
Leiza opens her mouth to squeal a greeting but stops short when Guigi raises her pointer up at the fresco, and says, “it’s titled Good Omens, and it is a definite sign of a propitious outcome.”
Dondi Dancy is a career Paralegal and founder/facilitator of a virtual book club, who writes short stories and prose poetry to remain grounded and aware of all that is beautiful in the world. Her portfolio includes: an Open Mic Poetry Showcase with Sacred Grounds (January 2022); the short story, “Driving Home” (Rigorous Literary Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 4, January 2022); the poem “Conceptual Beauty” (Brown Sugar Literary Magazine, Spring 2021); and a brief poetry collection titled “Joy is My Superpower” (SF-Write Now Talking to Strangers Anthology, December 2021).
Originally published September 14, 2022
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.