ISSUE 12, July 2017


Cover Art by Glass Valkyrie Studios




*Please enjoy our monthly issue for free. Be aware however, that this free version contains some formatting issues such as the abscence of italics. To experience the stories in their properly formatted versions, you can purchase a copy on Kindle or a print edition through Amazon.

The Visitors
By Randee Dawn

  
"Tell me a tale," I demanded of Máthair every night. I was a child, impatient and fretful. If I didn't ask, she might forget.
"Tá go leor agam," she always whispered back. I have many.
Tales tumbled from Ma's mouth like ripe fruit from a summer tree. She would pierce each one open with her voice, sending words flowing like juice, and me there to drink in every drop. I received my sweet portion at bedtime as part of the tuck-in ritual, but I had to wait in the near-dark, burrowed and warm under one of her misshapen crocheted throws until she was ready.
Eventually my bedroom door would swing wide and she'd stand in the in-between, a shadow blocking the hallway light. She would cross into my world, closing the door behind her and leaving us illuminated by nothing more than my nightlight – a ceramic fairy resting on her knees, head bowed, hands cupped in her lap. The fairy's wings pulsed with thin shifting colors.
Ma would turn to English then, which I understood better. "Have you collected all my tales yet, Fianna?"
"I'm trying," I'd insist.
She'd loop one of my dark unruly strands of hair around her fingers then, and tug gently. "Well," she'd say. "I must give you some more."
When Máthair spoke, her stories were about everything: dreams and perfect nothingness, unimaginable beasts and soaring bright birds, worlds beyond this and lost creatures that ventured between one and the other. Her tales had no beginnings, no conclusions. They just were, as if she was in fact plucking them from unseen branches.
She would speak for a time with her musical lilt, then her voice would pause and the silence would stretch out. She might crane over me then, thick auburn hair whispering over my cheek. If I was not already lulled to sleep – and I became very good at not being so lulled – I would let my eyes fly open and in that moment see her as a creature from her stories.
"'Tis all for tonight, mo stór," she would finish. My treasure.
She never said, "The end."
***
One night when I was ten, I lay awake after she left, her tales twirling in my mind like the snow whipping outside my window. I was preparing to surrender to the dreams they would weave for me, reveling in the in-betweenness of being both awake and asleep.
Downstairs was quiet. Ma had returned to her endless quest of mastering knitting needles and Athair was composing on his piano, lost in his music and lost to all of us with earbuds in to deaden the noise. We had no guests that evening, which was unusual but not unheard of. Most nights back then our Dublin row house fairly bustled with strangers of every shape and size, guests that knocked long after I was expected to be asleep. But often I wasn't, so I listened for any signs of arrival. When I heard them, I slipped from my room on silent bare feet and crept halfway down the staircase to watch the adult world transpire through the railings, my toes curling in delight and wonder.
On this snowy night, when I was half gone to dreams, a pounding shook me awake. Our front door creaked open after a moment and a gust of icy wind swept up the staircase and into my room. My nose twitched as I caught the scent of pine and earth. Throwing back the covers, I was at the top of the staircase a moment later, still and watching.
Down in the foyer stood a man with a head of thick curly black hair like mine, his cheeks scarlet from the cold. Snow coated his boots and sweater like one of Máthair's terrible patchy blankets. He was clutching the wrist of a child with wild, reddish hair who was nearly swallowed by an adult-sized coat. Ma had come out to greet the man and their Irish was firing back and forth so quickly I barely made out more than a few words.
"An buachaill," I heard. Boy. "Tréigthe." Left behind. Forsaken. "Trioblóide." Trouble.
Ma retreated to the sitting room, out of view. I imagined her tapping Athair on the shoulder and him taking out his earbuds. I shifted my weight and the floor creaked. Both man and child glanced up the stairs. The sparkling green of the man's eyes made me gasp – it was a color not found in any crayon box – and instantly I knew he was special. Full of unseen. Yet he was familiar; we had met – but I couldn't pin down where.
He smiled at me so gently I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks.
The child – a boy – tugged his hand from the man's grip and shrugged off the coat like shedding a skin. He was outfitted in clothes that would have seemed unusual if I hadn't been spying on my parents' friends for years – not cloth but organic matter: leaves, bark, moss. He addressed the man in a stern voice, then ran up the stairs, pausing one step below where I stood glued to the floor.
"Taispeáin dom do nead," he said and it took a moment for me to understand.
Show me your nest.
***
Ma's stories were all different, but they were also all the same: they told of the glorious unseen, wondrous talents and miracles that we would have called magic if we'd been permitted to.
During my childhood, no one spoke of magic. Before I was born, Athair explained, there were people called magicians who pulled rabbits out of hats or scarves from sleeves. But before I was out of nappies, actual magic began appearing in our cities and towns, small bursts of strangeness that were either delightful or terrifying, depending on your perspective. Is an unknown high street that only appears between 2:33 and 2:48 in the center of a raging motorway playful … or destructive? What of farmers who claimed their animals were speaking to one another, and not in Irish or English – but French?
The word came from our leaders: until we could control it, until we had mastery of unexplained happenings, magic was forbidden. During my youth, the very idea of trickery – even mere sleight of hand – could have you locked up by the Garda. Breathing of its existence outside our home asked for trouble; nosy neighbors were always ready to spy and report.
But inside our home the story was different. The strangers who visited – men, women and creatures of other races – were steeped in magic, in unseen. They gathered in our sitting room with my parents, firelight casting jumping shadows across their fine-featured faces and unruly, uncombed hair. They lay on the chairs and the settee and the floor, while others took their rest on the ceiling. They whispered words that made the fire bend and the room shake, words that were like Ma's version of Irish – differently shaped, softer, older than the kind I was learning in scoil.
Once comfortable and warm, they unleashed their unseen – a word that was closer to the true term Fae preferred – and reveled in it, growing competitive with the tricks they could pull. While I watched, one fashioned three-dimensional maps in the carpet; another made Athair's piano play on its own. A pair of visitors turned the entire room into a dark forest glade and everybody got lost in it for almost the whole night. Once the ceiling rained unripe blueberries. Another time a Fae grew a second version of himself that shouted the foulest words you've ever heard, then vanished. I preferred when they sang, voices turning the air above them into ribbons of color that streamed out the doorway. I breathed those colors in, hearing faint voices in my head that soon faded with the phenomenal hues.
"It's good to rest here," I heard one say once. "Nearly like back home."
But not all of the visitors could relax in our sitting room. These ones arrived in pairs or small groups, clutching towels or cloths around their heads and bodies. They looked furtive and tired and were often barefoot, casting suspicious glances everywhere – including up at me on the staircase.
"She's just come over," a family friend once told my parents, clutching the hand of a young woman with spiked hair and wide eyes. "An' is in need of docs." Documentation, I knew what that meant. We all had papers to say who we were and where we belonged and if we had been cleared of unseen in those years.
"This bunch slipped through an' left behind friends," a visitor said another time, gesturing at a couple I first took for twins whose skin seemed luminescent. "Can ye help their others tomorrow eve?"
A knock came from a solitary visitor one night who stared at Ma with empty eyes and skin the color of a dishrag. "Who am I now?" she asked, twisting a badly-knitted silver scarf in her hand. "Too long here. Everything is gone." They tried to bring her inside but she slipped into the fog and was not seen again.
"I'm going back," one young man told Máthair in a thin, hard voice as she swabbed down his scratched cheeks and set a frozen pack of broccoli on his eye. He'd been attacked the minute he came across the border by lurking humans who pelted him with rocks. "Warn Pádraig the way I came through's a dead route. It's forbidden."
"Y'didn't hurt them –" Athair began to ask.
One side of the man's face lifted in a half-smile that did not reach his eyes.
"No, no," Ma admonished. "Never strike back. They fear us too much already."
"Well," said the man, "those ones with the stones won't be tellin' anyone anything for a while. 'Less they come across somebody who speaks goose."
Ma sighed and sat back on her knees, hands in her lap, the same pose my fairy light held.
It was years before I learned why we had so many guests. We were a safe house, which I understood early on – but I did not know then that the border between Fae and Human was dissolving and taking the Fae worlds with it. I wasn't aware that these Fae only came because they had nowhere else to go; their lands, which had always been endless, were now finite and shrinking. There was no place for them but in our countries, where they were greeted with suspicion and violence. We didn't know how to live alongside them. Not for many years. All most of us had to give them was our fear.
But not all of us. Not Máthair. Not Athair. Not me.
Or, mostly not me.
***
"I don't have a nest," I told the red-haired boy that snowy night. "I have a bedroom."
I led him into the darkened room aglow with the colors of the ceramic fairy's pulsing wings. He strode straight to my nightlight and picked it up, examining it from all sides.
"Draíochta?" he asked, looking at me. Magic.
"Electricity," I corrected. "And you're not supposed to say that word here. Just say unseen.”
"'Tis ugly," he said of the light. "And a lie." His face twisted and a clump of bark fell from his arm, revealing the shining skin beneath. He lifted the little fairy up high and dashed her to the ground, where she broke into chunks.
Now we had no light at all but I knew where he was and I launched myself at him, pounding on his back, his head, his arms, but it was like striking stone and I stopped after only a few blows. Falling back against the bed, fists aching and chest heaving, I promised myself I would not cry. And then I did.
The mattress lowered next to me and I realized he was staring. His hand reached up to my face and I flinched, but not before he'd taken a tear onto a finger.
"Ah," he said. "Féach." Watch.
A sliver of light that had escaped from a corner of the shaded window slid across the floor like mercury and ran over his worn leather boots, then up his leg and into his palm. He cupped the light with his other hand and for a wink there was no light at all in the room.
Then he released it.
The light beamed skyward like a flower displaying its petals, painting the ceiling of my room with soft patterned white glow. Now I could make out his lightly freckled face and the remainder of his clothing, which seemed to be falling apart and dissolving as we sat there. He shivered once and I handed him Ma's crocheted throw from my bed. He wrapped it around his shoulders like a cape and nodded at me.
"I shouldn't be here," he said and I couldn't be certain if he was speaking English – or if I had somehow become fluent in his kind of Irish. It felt like the latter. It felt like unseen. "But it's terrible back home. Almost as terrible as here."
He didn't sound like a boy. He sounded much older.
"Home," I said. "Beyond." There were words for where he'd come from – his home, his beyond. But I didn't know the right name. Anyone who tried to call it Tír na nÓg with Ma always earned a laugh; its true name was one none of us could pronounce.
"It's not so beyond now," he said. "It'll be gone soon."
"You're safe here," I promised.
"Not really," he said. "I know of your unseen law. I know I won't obey it. It's a disaster for us."
"Why?"
He looked at me for a long moment. "You watch those who come to your home, don't you? Your visitors?"
I didn't know how he knew, but I nodded.
"Do they seem … happy?"
I thought about this. "When they're here they do."
"Outside these walls they are not. They are not permitted to be themselves. Our world is shrinking and there is less and less place for our kind. Your world is our only destination. But once we are here, we must hide. Be more like you."
"Why is that a disaster?" I asked. "This is our land."
"Another lie," he said roughly. "This was our home long before it became yours. We divided ourselves for a reason. But you are the visitors, not us."
I stared at the broken pieces on the floor and swung my feet slowly.
"Once we are here and told we must be like your kind, we begin to slowly strangle." He took a deep breath. "You had a visitor. She was lost. Came here, wandered away again. Yes?"
I nodded, thinking of the woman with her wrecked silver scarf, slipping into the fog.
"We know of her. She was one who left a very, very long time ago and stayed. Had a family. A job. And in time forgot who she was. By the time she came to your door, she was a shell." He folded his arms. "Did you hear what became of her?"
I shook my head.
"She filled her stomach with pebbles after she left your home. Sank herself in the river."
That didn't seem possible. "Fae don't die," I argued. "Do they?"
"We heal quickly if we can. But she was determined. She stayed down there an' drowned again and again before she could no longer heal herself."
Tears filled my eyes.
"Her name was –" and he sang a short melody with funny changes inside it that made the chair next to my bed rock and the lights flash. "She'd forgotten it by then." He shakes his head, red hair tumbling around like Ma's. "Take away our unseen and you steal the soul. Our soul." He paused. "Your Máthair's soul."
"No," I said. "Máthair is fine." But an uneasiness crept into me. I was sure I knew the truth: Ma was not from beyond. Ma was from here. Yet it was like swallowing moonlight to hear him suggest it. Something rested in my heart and flickered there.
"When the soul has no nourishment it dies," he said. "When we cannot do what we are meant to, we forget. We become … less ourselves. Too long here and we forget who we were."
"So why did you come?"
He stared at the ceiling, then down at me. "They want me to play peacemaker. To teach your kind to be unafraid. To acknowledge the unseen within themselves. But also to convince our own kind to be patient. Tell them that this may take many years. Some of our folk believe in rising up, taking back what was once ours. This will never do. Most of us do not wish to fight your kind. That path does not end well."
"I'm not afraid," I said.
"Of course not," he said. "You're surrounded by draíochta. It's as much a part of you as this –" and he gave one of my curls a tug, like Ma would.
"It's in me?" I asked.
He nodded. "Almost all of your kind is born with it, but it needs waking up. Nurturing."
"Show me," I said in the softest voice I could imagine, eyes watering. "I want to know what I have."
He lifted my hand and placed it between both of his. "This I can do."
Just then my bedroom door flew wide and in came everyone: Máthair, Athair and the dark-haired man. I recognized him now – he had once been a friend of Athair's. They made music together. We had photos and streaming videos of them playing in their band. But I hadn't seen him in years.
Ma pushed past the men and lifted me from the bed. I was far too big to be carried but she had no trouble with my size. I wriggled and pushed, but she held on tight. Athair flipped a switch and the light swallowed the glow on the ceiling.
"Cian," the dark-haired man said in a thunderous tone and the boy stood. Cian. His name. "We're going."
"I might stay here," said Cian.
"You bloody well will not," said the man. "And you know why."
With a giant twist, I burst from Ma's arms and fell to the floor. "I like him," I said. "He can stay."
Cian smiled at me. "Y'see. An invitation."
"'Tis not Fianna's place to invite," said the man, putting out a trembling hand. "They are not going to stop looking for you. We have to keep moving."
"Pádraig," said Athair. "Stay. There's no harm for one evening."
"Shut it, Mal," said Pádraig. I knew the name now, from the credits on the records. His smile had been so sunny in those pictures. "I'll not bring this to your doorstep."
"You have already," said Ma. "'Tis too late. Cian can take the spare room and you the sofa. We'll slip you both out after the storm."
Pádraig gazed around the room at us and I could see the tired all over him. He was thinner than in the pictures, with darkness circling his eyes. His hands made fists and he rubbed his face. "It hurts me to be here," he said. "If I'd had any other choice –"
Ma rested a hand on his shoulder and he flinched. "Don't fight what is," she said. "Have some tea and get some rest." She glanced at me. "Fee, pull out some of your old clothes for Cian. He can stay –"
"In the chair," said Cian, nodding at the spare seat in my room. "I'll do just fine there. I'll keep watch."
Ma looked between the two of us and her mouth switched from side to side, and then she nodded. It took me many years to understand what kind of decision she was making. Then they all left.
Cian and I stood there a moment. I handed him a jumper and sweatpants, then turned my back while he changed. He chuckled at me. When I turned back around he was like any other boy I might know except for his long, fiery hair.
"Now," said Cian. "Where were we?"
I slept only a little that night, too wound up to return to Ma's tales and their twirling in my brain. Cian showed me the special talent – the special unseen – that I had to work with, and explained I would have to use it in secret. "But not forever," he said. "I promise."
When he finished, I got back under my covers and Cian took the chair, curled up and staring out at the snowstorm with Ma's blanket tucked around him. "I don't need to sleep," he said. "But you do."
Cian was gone when I woke in the morning, Ma's throw gone with him. But on the side table next to my bed, my fairy was reassembled perfectly. Once again she kneeled, hands collected in her lap. But now her head was craned to the skies and her wings were gone. And when I next flipped her switch, the light that poured out was not colorful or pulsing – it was like a flower opening luminous petals on the ceiling, swirling endlessly.
***
I am grown now, or nearly so. I have nurtured my unseen and it is strong and sure now, though what I have done with it is a story for a very other day, as one of our visitors once said to me.
Cian and I have not crossed paths again, though I feel him everywhere. He came to our world to change hearts and minds, and he's been having slow success. Magic is carefully permitted in our land now, here and across the waters in England, Scotland and Wales. Places where it has always lived in stories and myths. Places full of people who want to believe.
But we are where things end: the rest of the world has our old fears, and we are sequestered. Quarantined, as if we have a sickness. None of us leave these isles any more. Yet they still come, the ones like Cian. Like Pádraig. And yes, like Máthair. I understand her better now. They come and no longer try fit in, letting their magic burst forth like light released into the skies, uncontainable, endless. No longer unseen.
Too late for Máthair, though. She sits still and quiet these months, as if she's been emptied out. When I visit, I catch her staring out the window or sitting on her porch rocker for hours, barely stirring. I used to think I had stolen bits of her essence as a child – that for every tale she dispensed, she lost a little of her vitality. But recently I thought about Cian's words again. Too long here and we forget who we were.
I wonder if I can help her remember, just a bit. To keep her from swallowing stones. I visit her as often as I can, joining her on the settee. I reach over to tuck her still vibrant hair behind one ear and say, "I have a tale for you."
She turns to me in time and our eyes meet. Light always reflects in hers, a deep verdant green I have only ever seen in one other before. "Tell me a tale," she whispers. "All of mine have left me."
So I do.
And I never say, "The end."

Randee Dawn

Randee Dawn is an author, journalist, and mom to a sweet West Highland Terrier. She published her collection of dark speculative fiction short stories, Home for the Holidays in 2014, and in 2009 co-authored The Law & Order: SVU Unofficial Companion.
Her short fiction has popped up in a number of publications and podcasts, including 3AM Magazine ("The View of My Brother's Profile in the Rear-View Mirror," "Warm, In Your Coat") and Well-Told Tales ("Home for the Holidays," "Can't Keep a Dead Man Down").
She is represented by Dunham Literary for her novel, The Only Song Worth Singing, which is seeking publication. When not making stuff up, Randee publishes entertainment profiles, reviews and think pieces in outlets including Variety, The Los Angeles Times, Today.com and Emmy Magazine. She also blogs regularly at randeedawn.com. 


Keep it Secret or it will Disappear
By Emma Grave

Aideen’s boot crunched on the leaf litter for the umpteenth time, only this time, she sensed something was wrong. As her foot landed, the ground felt softer – not as supportive – and her step sounded strange.
    With a low grumble, the earth quickly shifted, transforming the flat path ahead into a severe slope. Toppling forward on the uneven surface, Aideen instinctively stuck out her left arm to break her fall, scraping her bare skin. But she couldn’t stop her momentum and slid down the newly formed – almost vertical – hill, landing in a deep hole at the bottom with a thud.
                        ***
    Aideen shielded her eyes from the midday sun overhead with her right arm. Her left sent a rolling wave of pain from wrist to shoulder whenever she moved it. She could see a tree overhanging the hole, a noisy black bird aiming chirrups down from its branch as though scolding something below.
    Perhaps it's informing me how foolish I am, Aideen thought. Spending my first free day in ages searching for a myth in the forest.
    Aideen was an apprentice smith for the esteemed Ennar Stelforg in the town of Blackwell, which sat on the outskirts of the forest of Chasia. Her favourite past-time – away from working up a sweat and some impressive arm muscles by the stifling forge – was drawing. Her preferred subjects were those native to Chasia; the many varieties of flora and fauna. When a group of hunters had passed through Blackwell, reporting a sighting of the baradwys – unseen in these parts in Aideen’s lifetime – she’d quizzed them about the location and set off to find it the next chance she got.
Aideen checked the satchel slung across her body: its contents were undamaged. She heard a deep, hungry rumbling emanate from the walls of earth entrapping her. A panicked thought flashed in her mind. She shot a pleading glance to the sun goddess and gave a silent prayer that the dirt wasn't about to swallow her up.
The rumbling ceased.
Aideen examined the wall in front of her and spotted a number of holes gouged into the surface that ran the height of the wall, large enough for her fingers and the tips of her boots. After warily testing the nearest opening, Aideen began to climb up towards ground level.
The rumbling resumed.
Aideen lifted and lowered her head, trying to judge whether she was closer to her starting point or her freedom. Before she could reach either, the gaps she was using as handholds and footholds began to fill with dirt. Fearing a fall, she tried to find purchase in the lower holes she'd just vacated. They, too, filled with dirt. She dropped down to the next holes, but the dirt had now overtaken her and they were already filled in as well. Aideen scrabbled ineffectually at the sheer wall and fell back to the bottom with a thud.
Placing her palms against the now smooth dirt wall, Aideen aimed a few frustrated kicks at it.
Brown eyes downcast, her thoughts turned to Lunakyn, the young magitailor who so loved seeing her drawings and had encouraged her to go on this expedition.
Tall, lithe Lunakyn, whose parents had a store not far from Stelforg's smithy, where they weaved magic thread into garments, making them capable of many minor marvels. A waterproof outfit for a hunter, a fireproof robe for an apprentice mage, a ballgown that changed colour throughout the evening, a cloak that made the wearer more difficult to detect.
Aideen wished she was currently wearing something interwoven with the power of flight.
***
A rustling, like the sound of paper being scrunched up – which Aideen, as a creative soul often unsatisfied with her endeavours, was all too familiar with – made her look up. Just above her, a long, thick root stretched to the top of the hole.
Aideen was certain it hadn't been there a moment ago.
When the apprentice smith suffered a burn or a bruise while hard at work, she became extra vigilant in an effort to ensure she didn't suffer the same fate twice, so she was understandably suspicious of the root. She'd already been burned by the retraction of an escape route. But she was also aware of how far she'd walked into Chasia and she wasn't about to just sit around and wait for a search party, mainly because her dear uncle and guardian could probably go a fair few days before he even realised she was missing.
Aideen grabbed hold of the root and gave it a stiff tug. It didn't budge; it seemed sturdy and capable of supporting her weight. She shrugged in a ‘might-as-well-give-it-a-go’ way and began to shimmy up.
Mere moments later, a creak and a snap. Again, she landed at the bottom with a thud. She threw the piece of broken root against the dirt where it hissed and writhed like a snake before stilling.
***
Aideen examined her sore left arm while rubbing her aching tailbone. She had a sinking feeling that if she did manage to escape, she was going to be plagued with nightmares about being stuck in holes.
Falling into holes.
Hands clawing at her as she tried to get out.
Monsters living in holes.
Being sucked down into the dirt.
You name it, she was going to dream it.
She wondered if sweet, lovely Lunakyn would be able to weave her a nightgown that kept nightmares at bay. But that wouldn't be of much use if she couldn't find a way out. She'd be more in need of a shroud.
There must be someone behind this trickery, she thought. Have they set a trap and left the area? Or are they somewhere close by admiring their handiwork?
"All right, I've had enough now, can you let me out of here?" she cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted up at the sky. The sun goddess appeared to be remaining a casual observer, but Aideen hoped there was someone above her who could help.
No response.
Aideen waited a good long while, growing annoyed and impatient.
"Come on, the joke's over, you've had your fun!"
If this was someone playing a prank, they were going to get cuffed with a rough palm from her strong right arm.
She thought she heard the faint sound of a twig break.
"Fun?" a mature and raspy male voice said. "Is that what you think this is?"
Wide-eyed, Aideen scanned above her for the source of the words. "Not for me, that's for sure!" she yelled, infuriated. "Are you the one behind this?"
A wizened man in a long, weather-beaten cloak appeared at the edge of the hole, peering down at her. "You seek the baradwys that dwells in these parts, do you not?"
Aideen nodded, confused why that had any relevance to her predicament.
"This is your punishment, for hunting such a rare and precious species. Farewell." He turned away.
"Wait, please!" Aideen was alarmed by the finality of his tone. "I'm not hunting it. I wasn't going to hurt it."
The man turned back to regard her with disdain. "I suppose you expect me to believe you were just going to gaze at it and then leave?"
"I was going to draw it. Look..." Aideen opened her satchel and pulled out some paper and chalks. "I have no weapons, only these."
The wizened man's features twisted as he appeared to be considering her explanation.
"If you'll just let me out of here, I'll go straight home and I won't return to this place." Aideen sincerely meant it, and hoped she sounded convincing.
He didn't look too keen on the idea, as though what she was suggesting would greatly inconvenience him.
"Or I could draw you a picture?" Aideen offered.
After a pause, the ground beneath her shuddered and thundered, rising upwards to fill in the hole and lift her to the surface. When she was level with the man, Aideen stared into his sparkling green eyes.
"I will lead you to the bird," he said. "You will produce two drawings, one for each of us, and then you will leave."
Aideen agreed to his terms and – despite protest – was then blindfolded and led by the hand through the forest.
***
The man smelled of sage and smoke. His wrinkly hand gripped Aideen tightly. She repeatedly tripped over what felt like exposed tree roots and almost lost her footing on large stones, but took care not to tut, curse, or grumble.
When they finally stopped and the blindfold was removed, Aideen spotted the baradwys straight away. It wasn't shy.
"Hunters shot at him a fortnight ago while I was off picking mushrooms, but he hasn't grown cautious." The man's face gained more creases as he smiled affectionately.
The stunning bird had dark, spindly legs and a tail that split in two, curling at both tips. Its bright yellow beak sharply contrasted with its black head, while its fiery-looking body was yellow in the centre and turned to hues of orange before becoming red at the edges.
Aideen had a grand time shading with her chalks. She sat cross-legged on a soft patch of grass directly across from where the baradwys perched on a low branch.
Occasionally, he would hop about and twitter.
The wizened man – who introduced himself as Irvyn – chuckled in response and spoke conversationally to the bird as if he understood what its tuneful tweets meant.
After completing one drawing, Aideen set it aside, attached a plain piece of paper to her wooden board, and began to capture the colourful subject in a different pose; regal, with wings outstretched.
When she laid both finished works in front of her, the baradwys left its perch and fluttered to the forest floor. It tilted its head intelligently, as though studying the pictures, and then chirped loudly.
"He likes you," Irvyn said, tilting his head in the same manner.
Aideen smiled politely, not wanting to offend the man with untold magical abilities by asking how he could possibly know what a bird thought of her.
"I'll take this one," he added, indicating her first piece, which featured the baradwys from the side with his wings tucked in.
Aideen collected up the second picture and her drawing tools and slipped them inside her satchel. She bade the rare bird farewell and Irvyn led her – blindfolded again – to the edge of the forest. Once the blindfold was removed, she turned to thank him, but he'd vanished. Aideen twirled on the spot but couldn't locate him anywhere.
"Thank you," she called out, in case he was still within hearing distance.
Stepping away from the trees, back towards Blackwell, she opened her satchel and withdrew her drawing to check it. Looking down at the paper, her brow furrowed when the image began to fade. The remaining areas of chalk fleetingly rearranged into words before the original picture reformed.
'Keep it secret or it will disappear.'​

Emma Grave

Emma Grave is a British speculative fiction writer who lives with her husband and house rabbit. Since completing a Film Studies degree, she has worked as a Library Assistant, Notetaker, and Online Writer. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, playing video games, and watching films & TV shows.

Elephantine Daydream
By Mary E. Lowd

Jeko stared out the window at the asteroids and curled her elephantine trunk.  She didn't want to be in class with a bunch of dumb Heffen kids and newly sentient robots.  The Heffen kids acted like stereotypical canine aliens and kept to their packs, and the robots weren't really kids like her…  They showed up one week super-naive and talking all stilted, like computers, and a few weeks later they were smarter than… well… computers, and they graduated out.
For a while, there'd been a S'rellick girl in class, and Jeko had thought it could be cool to make friends with a reptilian alien.  (Cool, get it?)  But then she went on a hibernation trek to another star system, and Jeko was alone again.  The lonely elephant.
A crack and fizzle came from the front of the room and Jeko looked up to see the Heffen teacher holding a tangled, sparking mess of green wires in his paws.  
“These are psytrical vines,” he said.  “They have psychokinetic powers.”
“Does that mean they can make chairs float?” one of the Heffen kids barked.  “Oh no!  I feel it working on me!”  The Heffen boy jumped up on his chair and then threw himself down on the floor, barking with laughter.
“Get back in your seat, Daul,” the teacher said with the resignation of having said the same words a million times.  “Psytrical vines have the power to carry thoughts – only a short distance, because they're not very powerful, but it's a fascinating experience, and I thought you should all get the chance to try it.  So, pair up, and I'll hand out the vines.”
The Heffen kids paired up fast, and Jeko ended up with a shiny silver robot partner.
“Oh dear,” the teacher said when he came to them.  “Psytrical vines only work on organic brains – I have a different project for my robot students.”  So, he rearranged the pairs until Jeko found herself saddled with Daul, the class clown.
Within seconds of being paired with her, Daul held the pystrical vine up to his wolfish muzzle and barked, “Look at me!  I have a long nose like you!”
Jeko wrapped her trunk around herself, wishing she could hide it.  Or maybe slap Daul upside the head with it.
“Each partner take an end of your vine,” the teacher explained.  “Once you each have an end firmly in paw, you should be able to share your thoughts!”
Jeko was a daydreamer, but she was also a rule-follower.  So, as much as she didn't want to read Daul's mind, she reluctantly took the other end of his faux trunk with her real one, fully expecting to be hit with an onslaught of disgust and prejudice against her wrinkly gray skin and weirdly prehensile nose.
The green vine crackled electrically in the curl of Jeko's trunk.  She didn't see herself at all in Daul's mind.  Instead, she found herself swimming in a dizzying array of thoughts  – all of them focused on figuring out which Heffen child was most popular today and how to maintain her status – Daul's status – amongst them.  How mad could he make the teacher before getting in trouble?  If he didn't heckle the teacher would his friends still like him?
Daul dropped his end of the vine.  His eyes were wide.  “I didn't know you were so lonely,” he said.  There was a depth of understanding in his eyes, a true compassion, that Jeko would never have believed before she'd picked up that vine.  It made her feel embarrassed to know he'd seen inside her as deeply as she'd seen inside him.
“I hope…” Daul faltered.  “I hope you a find a friend.”
Jeko's wide ears blushed, and she wondered if he was offering to be her friend.  Maybe…  Maybe she could be friends with the Heffen kids after all.
Then Daul's eyes clouded with confusion and complication, and Jeko realized that he was calculating whether his own friends would think less of him if he were to hang out with the funny elephant alien.  
“I mean… a different friend,” he blurted and hurried back to the other side of the class.
The rest of the day, Daul darted looks Jeko's way, but she didn't look back at him.  She stared out the window at the asteroids, dreaming of when she'd be old enough to pilot a ship and wishing she could learn as fast as the robots.

Mary E. Lowd

Mary E. Lowd writes stories and collects creatures. She’s had three novels and more than seventy short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish. The stories, creatures, and Mary live together in a crashed spaceship disguised as a house, hidden in a rose garden in Oregon. Learn more at www.marylowd.com.






A Final Decision
By Rob Butler

Joe Struther was fairly sure he was dying. He lay in his hospital bed and listened to the gentle sound of monitoring devices whirring and beeping softly. There were hissing noises and subdued lights. Outside his private room he could see blurred figures through a glass door watching and waiting.
           Waiting for me to go, he thought.
           Joe closed his eyes. He slept for a while. Perhaps. He wasn't sure any more. He thought of people he used to know. Old friends and lovers. Then he saw the little old man for the second time.
***
The first time had been when he was really small, maybe five years old. That sort of age where nobody will believe a word you say. Joe was at the top of the stairs in his house. The little old man was sitting at the foot of the stairs on the handrail. He had both legs dangling down each side and was resting comfortably against the backstop. Joe remembered that his parents and his brothers were there too but they seemed oblivious to this strange figure who was staring straight at Joe with an amused look on his face. Joe couldn't take his eyes off him and was struck dumb even though he wanted to scream his lungs out.
The little old man said one thing.
“I'll see you again just before you die.”
At this point Joe fainted, and when he came round there was, of course, no sign of anything unusual. Nothing he could say convinced his parents. The doctor checked him out and said he was fine. An over-heightened imagination was credited as the cause of the event.
For years Joe remembered it. He had nightmares about it. Yet, eventually, it faded away as a childhood fantasy.
***
Now here he was again, sitting at the end of the bed. He looked exactly the same, long chin, skinny legs and arms, colourful clothes and a floppy hat.
“You look just like an elf or a gnome,” said Joe, who felt much calmer at this second encounter – probably due to the many drugs in his system.
“Yes. Humans have a folk memory of us.”
“Us?”
“I don't do this alone.”
Joe blinked. “You said you would see me again just before I died. Is it time?”
“You have eighteen minutes. You will be unconscious in a few seconds. I need to talk to you before you go.”
“A few seconds. Wow. You'd better be quick then.”
“No need. While you talk to me we are in a bubble of time. There is no hurry.”
“So, the longer I keep you talking, the longer I live?” Joe tried to chuckle but it wasn't easy.
“In a sense.”
“So, what do you want to talk about? It seems a bit late in the day for this.”
The little old man steepled his bony hands over his mouth and stared at Joe for several seconds as if he were deciding on what he was going to say.
“Over the past hundred years or so, my colleagues and I have begun visiting many human beings as they are about to die.”
“You must have a lot of colleagues.”
“Not necessarily. We operate outside of time as you know it. However, I will come to that shortly.” He paused. “We also visit them when they are very young so our second, and final, meeting is not too much of a shock.”
“I remember.”
The little old man smiled briefly. “Yes, you remembered much longer than most. I'm hoping that will mean you are more receptive to what I have to say.”
“Gee, this sounds serious. What is it?”
The little old man sighed. “Now we come to the difficult part.”
“You may as well spit it out. I haven't got long to go. I realise that. I wish I'd known more about this. I might have lived my life differently. Have you come to tell me I've sinned? Am I going to go to Hell?”
“No, no. This is quite another issue. Forget all about Hell. Or Heaven for that matter.”
“Oh.” Joe wasn't sure if this was good or bad.
“What I have come to tell you is that you now have a portentous decision to make.”
“Portentous? Oh wow.”
“I have to tell you that at the time of death some human beings can return to their previous life – or they can actually die. You are one of those people.”
Joe stared at him. He noticed there was no background noise now and he could talk quite freely. Must be the bubble he supposed.
“I can return to my previous life?”
“Or you can actually die.”
“Why would I want to die if I can return to life?”
The little old man drummed his fingers on the bedspread in annoyance. “That's what you all say. However, I am asking you to die. I am asking you to make a sacrifice.”
“I'm sorry. I don't understand.”
“Let me try to explain. Time does not simply move forwards and it is not the same everywhere. It is continuous. It can repeat itself. It can get stuck. For example, we are stuck here in this bubble while we talk. Your inevitable death has been suspended. However, your life is still continuing as we speak. You are being born. You are seeing me on the staircase. You are at school. You are getting married. You are becoming ill. You are dying. All these different events, and more, are happening continuously and you can now loop back and start all over again. However, I must stress, that everything would happen exactly as it did before. You will not remember your previous life for it is not previous. It is the same. You will not remember this conversation. So don't think you can return and make a fortune from this knowledge or live a better life or make more money or marry a more beautiful woman or any other such nonsense. You will just do it all again and end up here, in hospital, talking to me.”
“Hmmm. Well, I'm not sure I fully understand what you're saying. My life hasn't all been a bed of roses but it still sounds a whole lot better than dying.”
“Joe, Joe, I was hoping better of you than this.”
“Well, what's the other side of the story then? You mentioned me making a sacrifice. What's that mean?”
“I'm asking you to die. It's the natural order of things. It allows time to progress smoothly. Listen to me. Until quite recently in human history, life was short and brutish. Very few people wanted to live their life again. Religion was strong. People actually wanted to die and go on to a life eternal. They didn't know there wasn't such a thing but that's beside the point here.”
“Is it?”
“Yes it is. The main point here is that nowadays large numbers of humans are just cycling around and around and time can't move on. It's like an earthquake, Joe. The pressure builds and builds and then gets suddenly and violently released. If time fractured like that, then I have no idea what would happen. It would be catastrophic. We must continually release the pressure, and you can help us with that, Joe. Don't be selfish like all those other people. Do something wonderful. Make a real contribution.”
“And when you say ‘die,’ you really mean die? That's it. I'm gone for good. No afterlife at all. Nothing.”
“I'm sorry. No. Nothing. I know I'm asking a lot but let me tell you this Joe. You were too young to fight in the Second World War, but that war is still going on. We haven't been able to get the timeline past it yet. People are still dying horrible deaths. The Holocaust is still happening. Think of it, Joe.”
“You're saying if I agree to die, I can stop the Holocaust?”
“Well not exactly. Your death alone wouldn't do that but it would play a significant part in enabling us to move time onwards and that would benefit everybody in the long run. That's why I'm asking you to die, Joe.”
“Hmmm. I suppose nobody will actually know I've made this great sacrifice though, apart from you?”
“Me and all of my colleagues.”
“Oh yes. Your colleagues. Tell me, do you or your colleagues actually get to die yourselves?”
“A good question Joe. I'm sure we do at some point. It's just that living within time itself means we have never actually reached that point yet.”
“So you just kind of loop around in the way you don't want me to loop?”
“No, no, not the same at all, Joe. We are more integrated throughout time.”
“Ah ha. So, if you do ever reach this point, will you have the same choice as me?”
“I'm sure we would.”
“And you would choose to die?”
“Absolutely.”
“Right.” Joe pondered. “Tell me, is this the first occasion I've come to the end of my life or have I been around the block a few times already?”
“This is the first time, Joe. I do hope you will decide that it's the last.”
“Hmmm. And how do I decide? You haven't told me that yet.”
“It's quite simple. When I release this time bubble, you will drift off. As your essence departs your body, you will sense you have two routes to follow and it will be obvious what those are. Simply choose the one that is obviously death.”
“I hope I don't choose the wrong one by mistake.”
“You can't possibly confuse them, Joe. I hope I've said enough. Remember all those really bad days in your life – you don't want to live through those again do you? Remember your first wife. Remember the War. Remember the Holocaust. Make us proud, Joe.”
“I think I will. I really do. I see how important this is. I never did much with my life, but I can now make a real contribution with my death. Thank you for coming and explaining it all to me.”
“Thank you, Joe. And now I will say Goodbye.”
***
Joe Struther was five years old. He dashed out of his bedroom on to the landing. There was a little old man sitting at the foot of the stairs on the handrail. He had both legs dangling down each side and was sitting bolt upright against the backstop. He was staring straight at Joe with an angry look on his face.

Rob Butler

Rob Butler lives in Reading in the UK and his short fiction has been published in places such as Mad Scientist Journal, Shoreline of Infinity, Every Day Fiction and Daily Science Fiction. Some of his work can be found on his Amazon author pages including a small book of Drabbles, a few of which have previously appeared in Specklit Magazine. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Rob-Butler/e/B01ELRD8XS/

​ 


An Act of Jade
By Brooke Reynolds

Curt's ever growing crimson fingers tried furiously to pull his parents back together. A bit of jade, a single pearl.  Drill a hole through the center, slip the line, loop the knot. Two specks of rose quartz and three disks of sunset jasper to follow.  Drill the hole, slip the line, tie the knot.  Lapis lazuli with two dabs of peridot.  Drill the hole, slip the line, tighten the knot. Some tanzanite, a smidgen of snowflake obsidian.  Drill the hole, slip the line, pull until it hurts. Tighten, tighten, tighten. For all it’s worth, tighten that knot.
***
    At eleven years old, some of Curt Comstock’s fondest memories were his weekend visits to lapidary shops and other gemstone hunting sites with his father, an amateur rock hound. Curt’s father had spent his childhood searching for gemstones and now had the pleasure of passing the tradition on to his son.
On a Saturday in September, Curt and his father sat at their kitchen table, sifting through the day’s treasure. The late afternoon sun shimmered through the window behind them and left sunbeams clinging to the paisley printed wallpaper. Gemstones littered the surface of the glass table, screeching as their fingers slid the stones around.
One particular stone caught Curt’s eye, orange and red layers that gripped a dark chocolate base. “What’s this one?”
“Why, that’s sunset jasper. Shaman would use it for protection to absorb negative energy. Helps with stress.”
Curt nodded and moved all the jasper stones to a separate pile. He picked up an irregular shaped lime green stone. “I know this one. I have one just like it. Only comes in green; peridot. Helps with bicycles.”
“Ha. I think you mean cycles. But yes, son. That’s right. Regulates the cycle of life. And some still believe that if you dream of this stone on the eve of a full moon, it means something dark is coming.” His father crawled his fingers up and down Curt’s back.
“Very funny, Dad.” He brushed his father’s hands away. Rubbing his fingers over a smooth and unblemished deep green stone, Curt picked it up. “What’s this one?”
His father’s eyes lit up. “Now, that one’s my favorite.  It’s jade.  The stone of love and protection.  Comes in many colors too. Green for balance and growth, and red for courage.  You keep that one close, son. It’ll bring you good luck and make all your dreams come true.”
“How?”
“Why, magic of course.”
“Magic?”
“Sure. Why do you think we collect these stones? Now, I’m too old for them to work for me anymore, but I think you’re about the right age.  Same age I was when I started collecting stones with my father.”
“But are they really magical?” Curt held one of the jade pieces to his eye for a better look. “They just look like shiny stones to me.”
Curt’s father took the jade from his son’s hand. “Of course they are. Chinese still believe that each piece of jade holds a unique power. But that power will only be revealed to the one most deserving, the one willing to make a sacrifice. If you can find a way to string these together, in the correct order, they may even glow.”
“String together? Like a necklace?”
“Sure. You could call it that.”
“But they don’t even got holes in them.”
“The hammer drill will fix that. You saw me use it about a hundred times in the garage. It’ll drill right through these suckers.” His father’s cell phone started to buzz. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the phone.
“Who’s that?”
His father stood as he read the message. “Huh? Nobody. It’s work. Sorry buddy, but I have to step out for a bit. Tell your Mom I’ll be back later.”
“But it’s Saturday. That’s no fun.”
“Maybe I’ll get lucky. Now be a good boy and clean up this mess.”
***
The next weekend proceeded as normal with another rock hunting trip, this one to their favorite mountain pond, located just a few miles from their house. Curt and his father kneeled near the water’s edge, hands submerged, grasping and searching for the best stones and tossing back the rest. Curt ran his thumbs over the cool mud that covered the stone in his hand. He pulled his arm back and sent the stone flying across the water to plop into the depths. His father pulled out a stone as well.
“Here son, watch me. Sidearm always works best.”
Curt watched as his father sent the stone skipping, breaking the surface of the water once, twice, three times, before ker-plunking into the depths. Ripples danced and spread across the surface of the water.  Minuscule waves drifted and blended, before they settled, to display once more a peaceful surface on the mountain lake. Fog drifted and billowed off the surface of the pond and slowly rose into the morning sky.  
A flicker of light caught Curt’s attention and he reached into the water to pull out a new gemstone. “Look, Dad. I think I got one. Maybe this one will glow?”
His father kept his cell phone close, checking every few minutes for messages. “Couldn’t hurt.” A huge smile plastered his face.
“Can you show me how to skip the stone again to make ripples?”
“Huh?”
“The ripples.”
“Yeah, sure, buddy.” The phone buzzed again and his father was quick to read the message. Rubbing the back of his neck, he looked around before sending a response. “Look, son. Work needs me again so I have to go in. Grab your stuff and I’ll drop you at home with Mom.”
They pulled into the driveway and saw Curt’s mother, raking leaves in the yard. “Back so soon?” she asked.
Curt ran past his mom into the house with the gemstones. His father stayed in the car with the window rolled down. “Yeah. Look, I just got called into work and I have no idea how long it’s going to take.”
“I thought we discussed this, Frank. You weren’t going to be on call anymore on the weekends. You work enough during the week as it is.”
“Sorry, Steph. It’s the new intern. I’m supposed to be her mentor and she needs help.”
“What intern?”
“Bethany. You met her at the lake party over the summer.”
“The brunette with the nice figure?”
“Come on, Steph. She’s a young doctor and is nervous being on her own.”
“She seems awfully needy.”
While Curt’s mother and father talked, Curt snuck into the garage. Dead leaves, swept in by the chilled autumn air, lined the floor of the garage and crunched underneath Curt’s feet. He had seen his father use the bench drill more than a hundred times and knew how to work it. He positioned the silver diamond core drill bit and tightened the head of the drill, then secured the bit. Curt brushed his hand over the oak workbench to push away any debris from the drill, allowing miniscule splinters to bite into his soft, un-calloused palm. He jerked his hand back, sucking and chewing at the splinters that dug into his hand.
On the walls hung tools of all shapes and sizes, each one organized and fitted to its own spot. He filled a cup with water from the nearby sink and carried it back to the drill, spilling some with each step.  It soaked through the mesh of his sneakers. Curt dipped the secured drill bit in the water to keep it cool and pulled the polished lapis lazuli from his pocket. With the stone positioned, he flipped the switch and sent the hammer drill roaring to life, kicking up dust as the bit penetrated stone.  As it sunk deeper, creating a crater, Curt coughed and sputtered on the dust and wiped grimy sand from his lips. The smell of a burning motor filled the room. He pushed until the pressure released and his hand flew up the bit with ease. Curt doused the stone in water to cool it from the heat of the drill. 
He held up the dripping finished product to the window. He’d made a slightly crooked hole, large enough to pass a string, through the white speckled midnight blue lapis lazuli. Curt turned off the drill just as his mother opened the garage door.
“Curt, what are you doing? You’re not supposed to be using that thing without your father.”
“But I needed to drill holes for my necklace.”
“I don’t care. This is a very dangerous machine. You could have cut yourself or drilled a hole in your hand.”
“But Dad’s always at work and I needed it done now.”
“Trust me, I know. Your father and I are going to have another talk about priorities.”
***
Later that week, Curt’s family was seated at the kitchen table, their first meal together in over two weeks. Cedar smoked salmon, steamed broccoli, and rice pilaf sat before them. Curt sat with his chin propped in his hand and slid his food around his plate.
“Stop playing with your food,” his mother said.
“Why do we gotta eat stuff that has no flavor?”
“Just because it isn’t deep fried three ways doesn’t mean it has no flavor. Your father is watching his cholesterol and this is one of his favorite meals. Isn’t that right, sweetie?”
Curt’s father kept pulling out his phone to check his messages. A heavy stubble covered his normally clean-shaven face. His eyes were puffy and looked heavy from exhaustion. “Huh?”
“Frank? Are you even listening to me? Put that phone away.”
“It’s my work phone.”
“Work can wait. We are trying to have a nice dinner.”
His phone buzzed again and Curt’s father checked the message. He stood up from the table and carried his plate over to the sink, dumping the untouched meal down the garbage disposal.
“Frank?”
“Sorry. I have to go in.”
“Sit down. Work can wait.”
“Uh, no it can’t. Bethany has a critical patient at the hospital and she needs my help.”
“I said, sit down. Let one of the other clinicians deal with her.”
“I don’t have time for this, Steph.” Curt’s father grabbed his keys and slammed the door. Curt’s mother threw her fork down in frustration.
“Uh, mom?”
“What is it, Curt?”
“Do I have to finish this? Dad didn’t eat his.”
“Go to your room.” His mother’s face was flushed and she stood and walked to the sink, dumping her attempt to please her husband down the drain. Curt got up from his chair and paused a moment, watching his mother. She grabbed the edges of the sink and her shoulders shook.
“Mom? I’m sorry I said your food had no flavor.”
“Not now, Curt. Go to your room and play with your stones.” To Curt it sounded like she was holding back tears.
***
Weeks went by and his father was around less and less, which left Curt frustrated that he had to work on the necklace by himself. He worked steadily every weekend and sometimes during recess at school. No matter what combination he formed, the stones refused to glow. His latest necklace was filled with all different kinds of colored stones - reds and greens, blues and browns. Curt walked into his parent’s bedroom one Friday after school to show his mother his newest creation he’d crafted that day and caught her going through his father’s pants pockets.
“Mom, check out my newest necklace.”
She walked over to her son and and lifted the necklace, giving it a thorough inspection. “Very nice. But I think you need something to spice this up. Why don’t you add a few precious stones?” She rifled through her jewelry box, pulling pearls and various trinkets out and handed them over to Curt. “There you go. The pearls were a gift from your father.”
“I don’t know, Mom. Dad didn’t say anything about jewelry having magic powers.”
“Yeah. Well, your father tends to say a lot of things that aren’t true.” She went back to the pants and turned the last unchecked pocket inside out, grabbing onto a receipt. “That lying sack of shit.”
“Don’t say mean things about Dad.”
“Go to your room, Curt.”
Curt clutched the necklace and pearls in his hands and carried them off to his room.  On a peg in the back of his closet he’d hung all the necklaces he’d made, his failures, though maybe even they possessed a little magic.  He took all the necklaces and sat on the floor with the pile of jewelry in front of him. Staring at the spread, he closed his eyes and prayed for the stones to do something.
After a few minutes, he heard his father walk through the door. Curt went out to warn him and saw his mother standing by the door with her arms folded, tapping her feet, and squeezing the receipt in her hand.
    “Where were you?” His mother asked, voice raised.
    “Ummm, at work.”
    “Oh, really?” She took a step toward his father, clenching her fists. “Came straight home after, huh? Didn’t stop anywhere with anyone in particular?”
    “What the hell is wrong with you?”
    “Oh, come on, Frank. Don’t play dumb. I know you’ve been cheating on me.” She threw the receipt in his face. “And here’s proof.”
    Curt’s father picked up the receipt. “What? A dinner receipt? Didn’t know eating dinner was cheating.”
    Tears began to pour down Curt’s mother’s face. “We were supposed to go out that night. I got dressed and waited here at home. And you were out with her. Bethany. Your favorite little intern.”
    Curt’s father walked over and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Stephanie. Come on. I’m not cheating on you. It was just dinner. We were working late and I honestly forgot about our plans.”
    “Don’t touch me.” She spun away from him.
    “I’m sorry.” Curt’s father rubbed his mother’s shoulders.
    “I said, don’t touch me.”
    As the questions and accusations continued, Curt went back to his bedroom, where only a paper-thin wall separated him from the shouts and sobs of his parents. He had never seen his mother cry like this before and his parents had never argued in front of him. He wished this Bethany person would just go away and then his parents could go back to being happy.
Curt sat back down on the floor of his room with the pile of gemstones and his mother’s jewelry in front of him. As he sat with his head in his heads, tears began to well in his eyes. He was silly to think stones could possess magic. Even if they could, he was selfish to wish for an unlimited supply of ice cream and LEGOs. Right now, he wished for his parents to stop arguing. A few stray tears dropped and fell onto the pile of stones in front of him.
A slow, quiet buzz filled the room. It was like the sound his speakers made when he left them on after the music stopped. He looked around, searching for the source of the sound when a dancing, flickering light caught his eye. A green jade stone that was touching one of his mother’s pearls was glowing, emitting a yellow hue.
Curt grabbed a string. Maybe the stones only worked when mixed with his mother’s jewelry. Or maybe it was his tears. He picked up the jade stone and rubbed it across his face, smearing more of his tears on its smooth surface. The jade stone’s light intensified and Curt almost shouted with joy. He had to work fast. Grabbing a string, he ran it through both the jade stone and the pearl, making sure to keep them touching. He let go of the stone as his hands began to burn, the stone continuing to buzz and blaze. He looped and tied the string and pulled with all his might. He had to make this knot last. Curt pulled and pulled, but pulled too hard.  The string snapped and sent the pearl and jade stone rolling in separate directions across the floor. When they came to a stop, the glow had faded and the room was once again silent.
This was the first time his knot had broken. It had to be the heat from the stone. He needed to find something stronger. Curt ran his hands through his hair like he had seen his father do many times before when deep in thought. He knew the garage had many tools and trinkets. He listened closely but heard nothing. His parents’ fighting had finally stopped. Slowly turning the knob on his door, he tiptoed out of his room and down the hall.   
The garage was dark. He fumbled around before bumping into the light switch. Gazing at the wall behind the workbench, he took in every tool and hanging object.  High up on the wall, above the hammers and wrenches, was a spool of steel cable hanging from a peg. Curt knew this was what he was looking for but he could never reach it from here. He fought his way up onto the workbench, legs kicking and flailing as he pulled himself upright.
As he grabbed the cable and turned, he saw a fly trapped in a spider web beside it, buzzing and fighting for freedom.  Curt reached up and brushed at the web, setting the fly free. His foot slid and knocked into a stray wrench, sending it clanking to the concrete floor. He jumped down just as his father opened the door to inspect the source of the sound.
“What’s going on out here?”
“Sorry, Dad.”
“What are you doing with that cable in your hands?”
“My string broke. I can put it back if you want.”
“No, that’s fine. Just be careful when you’re tying your knots. This is steel and it can cut you. You should probably wear gloves or come find me if you need help tightening the knots.  Now run along to bed. It’s late. Be careful with that cable.”
“I will, Dad.”
Curt scurried off to his bedroom, clutching the cable in his hand. He kept the light off, for fear he would be caught. The moon was full and a clear night provided just enough light to work. Grabbing a random stone from the pile and a piece of jewelry, he pushed the two together.  Nothing happened. He poked himself in the eye to make it water and released a fresh batch of tears on the stone. Still, nothing happened. Maybe he had the wrong combination. He picked through the stones and grabbed a jasper and combined it with some rose quartz, but the stones remained silent. Curt searched the pile, looking for the jade that had glowed earlier, but couldn’t find it anywhere. His eyes grew tired and he yawned. He would try again in the morning.
That night, under the full moon, Curt dreamed of a riverbed filled with lime green gemstones.
***
Curt woke early the next morning with a sense of purpose. Glancing down at his hands, he saw the red outline of a gemstone in his palm, evidence that the jade had glowed. He bounced down from his bed and got on his hands and knees. He ran his hands through the carpet, searching for the pearl and jade. His fingers bumped a small round object and Curt picked up the pearl. He grabbed the multi-strand steel cable and placed it on his bed with the pearl, making sure not to lose it.
Back on his hands and knees, he felt around some more looking for the jade but couldn’t find it anywhere. He searched beneath his bed, beneath his bookcase, and even in the back of his closet.. The smoky smell of bacon filled his nostrils, and his stomach rumbled. His mouth watered and his father called him for breakfast. He abandoned his search and hustled down the hall.
His mother was still asleep. Curt used the time alone to plead with his father.
“Hey, Dad?”
His father looked up while scraping eggs onto a plate with bacon. “Yes, son?”
“Can you maybe please not go into work on weekends anymore?”
“What on earth would make you say that?”
“I know you and Mom are fighting and I don’t think she likes that you keep leaving to be with Bethany.”
His father set the plate in front of Curt. “Your mother and I simply had a misunderstanding.”
They ate their breakfast in silence. As his father stood to clear the table, his cell phone buzzed and vibrated. Curt grabbed his father’s hand and looked up at him. “Please, Dad. Just stay at home with us today. We’re supposed to go looking for gemstones.”
“This is just work, son. I have to go in.”
“But with Bethany?”
“Yes, with Bethany. I work with her. She is a colleague.”
“You promise you’ll come home right after?”
“Sure. Love you, kiddo.”
As he watched his father’s truck back out, he knew he had to find another jade stone. If it meant relying on his father’s promise to be home that evening, Curt needed all the magic he could get.
Curt grabbed a sweatshirt and slipped out the back door. He wandered to the edge of the yard and into the woods behind his house. The woods today seemed different, darker than all the other times he’d been in them. A cold chill was in the air.  Other than the rustling leaves and the faint sound of trickling water in the distance, the woods were silent.  Knowing that jade gemstones were often associated with water, he followed the sound.
He came to a clearing with a small flowing stream. Crouching down on his knees in a bed of soft pine needles, he peered into the stream. Sunlight forced its way through the canopy of trees above him, casting strange shadows around him.  He imagined he could hear the trees creaking and moaning as their branches swayed back and forth in the breeze. When he looked into the bottom of the stream, he found a perfectly round, deep green, jade gemstone.
Curt couldn’t believe his luck. He pulled the stone from the water, dried it off on his shirt, and ran back home to the garage. In his haste to drill a hole, Curt’s hand slipped and kissed the edge of the hammer drill bit, ripping off a layer of skin.  His blood dripped onto the gemstone.  A soft purr sang out and the jade began to glow. Curt let out an ecstatic laugh. This was going to work, but his gut told him he needed more magic to keep his parents together.
He ran into his bedroom and smeared his blood onto the jasper, the peridot, and various other gemstones. Each one glowed and buzzed to life, sending a disco ball effect of light onto the walls and ceiling. Curt watched the lights dance and move together. He was ready.
The sun dipped below the sky, and still his father stayed away. Curt grabbed a pair of gloves and tied the base knot in his necklace. As he pulled and tightened, his hands kept slipping through the strands of steel cable, unable to get a good grip. After several failed attempts, he shed his gloves and tied the knot barehanded. As he pulled tight, his hands found purchase but he could feel the cable pushing into his hands the tighter he pulled.
A moment later, his father entered through the front door, banging around into various objects like a pinball, waking Curt’s mother, and sending her stomping down the hall.  Curt slipped the still glowing hot green jade down the steel cable line, followed by a single pearl, and looped the knot.
“Just say it, Frank.” The tone of his mother’s voice, through the wall of Curt’s room, sent chills up his arms.
“Say what? Jesus, Steph. I just walked in the door.”
“I want to hear it from your lips. For once in your life tell me the truth.”
“Keep your voice down. Curt’s asleep. And what the hell are you talking about?”
Curt added two specks of rose quartz and three disks of sunset jasper to follow.  Slipped the line, and tied the knot.
     “Tell me that you’re cheating on me with Bethany. I’m not stupid, Frank. You’re not exactly hiding anything. Might as well just throw it in my face.”
“Stephanie. I work with her. She is a colleague. An intern. I’m her mentor. My job is to be available when she needs me.”
    As their voices rose, Curt added lapis lazuli with two dabs of peridot.  Slipped the line, and tightened the knot.
    “Come on, Stephanie. Let’s not do this tonight. It’s late. I want to go to sleep. Let me sleep.”
“Fifteen wonderful fucking years of marriage, Frank. Flushed down the drain, just like that. I hope she was worth it.”
Some tanzanite, a smidgen of snowflake obsidian.  Curt slipped the line and pulled the knot until it hurt. Pulled the knot until the cable cut into his hands and they bled.
    “Calm down, Stephanie. I’m not cheating on you. What the hell do I have to do to prove that to you? I have never cheated on you. You are acting completely crazy.”
    “Get out.”
“Stephanie.”
“Get out of this house right now.” His father’s cell phone, lying on the kitchen table, buzzed and vibrated. Curt’s mother picked it up, tossing it at his father. “Perfect timing. Tell Bethany I said hello.”
Curt pulled harder and tightened his knot. Even as his blood dripped on the gemstones, causing each one to glow, for all it was worth, he tightened that knot. Curt stood up and placed the blood-drenched necklace around his neck. He left his room to find his parents.  He kept his hands cupped together to keep the blood contained, but still it flowed.  It dripped off the sides of his hands and left a red trail along the beige carpet. He reached out and grabbed at his mother’s arm, smearing dark blood on her sleeve.
“What?” His mother turned to face him. “Oh, dear God. Curt! Look at your hands! What’s wrong with your hands?”
“I, I cut them trying to tie the knots.”
“What are you talking about? Knots?”
    “For my necklace. Tie the knots to keep the magic. To keep you two together.”
His father grabbed a rag and wrapped them around Curt’s hands. “Geez, buddy. You really did a number on yourself. Stephanie, go grab some more towels. We have to get these wrapped tight so I can get him to the hospital.  Man, these are deep.  You’re going to need some stitches.  Doesn’t it hurt, Curt?”
Curt stood still while his father worked to slow the bleeding. “Do you see them glowing Dad? Do you hear them singing? I figured out how to make them work.”
“What are you talking about, buddy?” In the background, the phone continued to buzz and vibrate.
“It worked, Dad. Now you two can stay together.”
Curt’s father kept his eyes focused on his son’s hands. His mother returned with towels. “Stephanie, you’re going to sit with him while I drive us to the hospital. Let me just grab my phone.”
Curt’s father answered his phone. “Hello? Yes, this is him. Oh, God, no. Bethany.” His jaw dropped.
“How dare you even bring her up. Is that the bitch now?” Curt’s mother snapped.
Curt’s father lifted a hand to silence her. “No. I understand. Thank you very much, officer.” He hung up the phone and ran his hands through his hair. “That was the police. Bethany was in a car accident on her way home from work tonight. She, uh, she died. Broke her neck. Died on impact.”
A smile formed on Curt’s lips.  And in that exact moment, he believed in the power of gemstones.

Brooke Reynolds

Brooke Reynolds is a veterinarian from Charlotte, North Carolina. When she isn't saving animals, she enjoys reading and writing fiction. Recently her short story “Dr. Google” won 2nd place in the 2016 Channillo Short Story Contest. Her work has also appeared at The Scarlet Leaf Review and The Story Shack. Her latest story "Extraction" is scheduled to appear in Massacre Magazine at the end of June. Typically her writing style includes horror, neo-noir, and transgressive satire with a literary bent. You can follow her on twitter @psubamit

About the Editor:
Madeline L. Stout

Madeline L. Stout started writing when she was a little girl and completed her first full-length novel at the age of 15. Mostly, she loves creating fantasy worlds filled with beautiful creatures and strong heroines. When her husband insists she takes a break from writing, she enjoys reading and gaming. She started Fantasia Divinity to give back to the writing community and to help spread great stories. Madeline is the author of the children’s series Once Upon a Unicorn


Want to know more? Madeline is featured in an interview by Cathleen Townsend, where she discusses the magazine and her writing.


About the Assistant Editor:
Amber M. Simpson

Amber M. Simpson has been writing short stories and poetry since the age of ten. Lover of all things horror and fantasy, she writes mainly in these genres, often with a touch of romance thrown in for fun.  Amber lives in Kentucky with her husband and their two crazy but loving little boys.