The Beginning of the End

Tchaikovsky was a genius. The sheer curtains are billowing like Odette’s skirt as The Dance of the Swans plays on the stereo. The spring flowers in the side garden are dancing along in the breeze. Claudia wonders what would happen if she stood up and started dancing around the room. She loved ballet as a child, but she hasn’t danced for years. Master says that it would make her fibromyalgia pain much worse, even if she doesn’t think so. But what was the point of being an owned person if you didn’t obey your owner?

The man in question looks up from his paperwork and frowns at her soft sigh. Much of the time, her job is to be seen and not heard. “Turn that off, please,” he says, before going back to the paperwork that seems to be annoying him so much.

“Yes, Master.” She rises from her kneeling position near the door. The ice cubes in his orange juice aren’t melted, so there’s no need to refresh the glass. She returns to the doorway and sinks back to her knees. No music. No dancing. Definitely no sighing.

Master hisses between his front teeth, and marks off something angrily on his papers. As long as he has to work on them, she’ll have to kneel in her silence by the door. Russell Derleth, her Master, has played a lot of classical music for her son Lucas, he’s told Lucas stories about the lives of the composers, but Claudia suspects that he doesn’t like music much. Opera gives him headaches, but he goes anyway. He loathes modern music even more, calls it noise. Somebody like Mahler, barely mid-century, is beyond his patience. The Philadelphia Orchestra, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Opera Company of Philadelphia, he patronizes them all, but she suspects that it’s business, not pleasure. He always comes back late from intermissions.

She’s not sure she gets his lack of enjoyment, she loves the Philly Orchestra; their chief conductor is a genius. The critics rave about how S. David Smith rebuilt the orchestra from squabbling factions, but where it tells is in the music. Claudia likes the conductor’s choices on what to emphasize, his understanding of how themes rise and fall, the surprising places he makes something clear in music that people haven’t heard before. Yes, that’s how it should be, at so many points that she just floats home afterward, very much as if she’s been dancing herself. She’d attend every single performance if she were given a choice. Good live music is bliss.

ballerina in feathers
Swan Lake

Kneeling in her owner’s presence is far from the bliss she feels at a concert. It’s an exercise in mindfulness and obedience. Master has told her that she should be grateful for the opportunity to be in his presence so much of the time that she’s required to kneel. He wanted her to cultivate a Zen-like calm, and felt that this was the best way to go about it. She’s overheard his boss criticizing his methods, but that only makes him more obstinate. Besides, he says, what would Regent Matheson know about training a slave, anyway?

Still, she certainly doesn’t feel serene or enlightened today. She just feels bored. And restless.

There’s a little puff of breeze, fluttering the sheers near her, and again Master glances up in irritation. A muscle in his jaw twitches as he glares at the curtains. She makes a note to check on those papers and find out what’s so infuriating, see if she can forestall it happening again, as with the household expenses. She’ll have to break out the lavender and chamomile blend that she keeps on hand for his tension headaches. That is, if he ever allows her out of this corner.

woman's hands in deep lace cuffs
Venetian lace cuffs
She makes a mental note to find out what Master’s working on that’s annoying him so much. If it were something that she could help with, he would have just handed it to her with instructions. She already handles all of the household accounts, but she’s forbidden to look at his work papers. He hates paperwork, and his job as a Knight of Saint Christopher generates a lot of the stuff.

Perhaps he wouldn’t be so crotchety if his boss the Regent weren’t breathing down his neck all the time. He’s supposed to be coming by in the next day or so, so that may be what the push on this paperwork was all about. She swears that Regent Matheson spends more time in their home than he does in his own. Perhaps he’s lonely, but it would be easy for someone like him to find companionship. He’s rich, handsome enough for an older man, and possessed of the sort of affable charm that some people find irresistible. He winds all the dance and orchestra people around his thumb like so many sycophants.

Regardless of his charms, Claudia doesn’t like him. He makes things harder, riling up Master so often about some mysterious business things they’re working on. He’s always watching her, and not in a flattering way. He makes suggestions about her training, even though he’s made it clear that he’s not into kink of any sort. When she’s in another room, he’s pretty sharp with Master about what he’s not doing, where he’s not making enough effort to educate her in the proper subjects. He dares to suggest that she’s not getting enough of the right kind of exercise. He thinks Master keeps her shut away in the house too much, or sometimes too little. She feels like some sort of zoo animal when he’s around. Creepy.

She briefly imagines a Spinosaurus breaking through the window frame and eating Master whole, just plucking him up from the chair and tossing him down. Amusing, but hardly fair. If she was feeling disgruntled, what was she doing here? She has a purpose in life, a place to live, security for her son Lucas. If things were lacking, wasn’t that just part of life?

Why couldn’t she just relax and think child-thoughts, as he’s sometimes advised her to do? Goodness knows Lucas is a cheerful, loud model. He’s doing really well at the Montessori school. He’s a happy, bright child with lots of friends. Matter of fact, he’s at a play date right now. She suspects that the little blonde girl, Aspen, has a crush on him. They were funny at this age — another couple of years and you wouldn’t be able to get him near a girl. He’ll probably come home chattering up a storm, and Master will smile indulgently. He never complains about Lucas making noise.

So why is she so restless this afternoon? She searches her memory for a precedent and finds nothing; he sailed through adolescence without so much as a detention or a missed curfew. There was a vaguely respectable boyfriend, grades solidly in the top third of her class, a place on the junior varsity girl’s basketball team, ballet recitals. She hadn’t talked back to her parents, she hadn’t gotten in trouble with the police. The only drama to mar her parents’ proud and placid regard had been her announcement that she was pregnant. Just out of high school? It just wasn’t seemly.

Then she met Russell Derleth. He knew what she wanted, what she needed, even if she didn’t. And he had explained it all to her, slowly and patiently, shown her all about his secret world, the world of dominance and submission. And suddenly everything made sense. Master showed her it wasn’t just an idle daydream. It was a way of life.

woman in black riding habit on bay horse
Poise and Balance

Not that everything is perfect all of the time. Her master doesn’t seem to be interested in sex, much as he isn’t interested in music. She tried to seduce him a few times, with a spectacular lack of success. He told her her attempts had been pitiful, and that she should be ashamed of herself. She certainly wasn’t permitted to go out and pick up anybody. How could she ashamed, when he gave her absolutely no chance to practice seduction? He simply would not stand for it.

But that’s a minor thing. Lucas takes up most of her energy, and all the rest goes to handling things for Master. Besides, Claudia suspects that perfection would be a disappointing state; it’s striving for it, working toward it, that interests her.

Her parents, now– there’s an area which could use improvement. Maybe her parents sensed that theirs was not a love match. In retrospect, Claudia never should have told her mother about the master and slave part at all. But she had been so thrilled about striking out into this new and tantalizing territory, and she had no one else to talk to.

She never expected the nuclear meltdown that had ensued over the phone. Her mother had argued, and threatened, and cried, and eventually she’d contacted lawyers and friends of friends who knew deprogrammers. Her parents never seemed to understand that this was the life Claudia had chosen for herself, that this was what she wanted. In the end, their relationship had been strained to the point of fear.

She was afraid to trust Lucas with them, knowing that they had filed papers twice to have him taken away. It was a good thing that her owner knew a competent lawyer or two.

She still couldn’t understand why her parents couldn’t be happy for her. Finally, she knew what she wanted. She knew where she belonged. And if it wasn’t perfect, well…

What was?

She adds more horns to her Spinosaurus. And gives it a neon pink hide. And has it screaming Broadway show tunes at the top of its considerable lungs. Or maybe Mahler would be nice…

ballet corps in white onstage
Timing is Always First

She’s Leaving Home

The three of them sit around the television like a little family. Lucas giggles as a tiny meerkat attacks his sibling, missing completely and tumbling down an incline in a puff of Kalahari dust. He sighs with contentment. “The best things are always on when we watch tv, Uncle Russ.” Claudia’s Lord lets him believe that it’s some sort of magic, even though it’s just a DVR. The overly-complex remote could conjure up all sorts of educational programming, from small furry creatures to huge space-going vessels. Claudia thinks that Lucas may never have watched a cartoon. Or perhaps he watches them when he goes to visit his friends after school. What sorts of cartoons do they show now, anyway? She isn’t permitted to watch television except on occasions like this.

The older man sitting on the couch sets his glass down with a rattle of ice cubes, and smiles at the first-grader in his lap. Suddenly, a tickle fight ensues. Hard to tell who started it, but easy to tell who’ll win. Lucas is slippery as an eel, and twice as quick.

Claudia rises in one smooth motion from her seat on the carpet. She snags the empty glass and moves to the kitchen to get a refill – orange juice with a drop of vanilla extract and three ice cubes.

By the time she returns the tussle is over and both of them are chuckling and staring warily at each other out of the corners of their eyes. The full glass goes neatly on the coaster, and she clears her throat quietly.

“Ok, young man, time for you to go to bed,” his Uncle Russ declares. Lucas slumps in dismay, but goes willingly enough. Tomorrow is a school day. “Claudia, please bring my laptop downstairs after you tuck Lucas in for the night.”

“Certainly, My Lord.”

Lucas and Claudia ascend to the bedroom; the child can’t contain his yawns any more. He’s going to split his head in two if he doesn’t stop, they’re so wide. Ten minutes later he’s scrubbed, attired in fresh pajamas, tucked into his bed and still yawning. Claudia looks forward to snuggling in herself – Lucas’ sheets smell fresh and faintly bleachy. The housekeeper has done the bedrooms today, and her sheets are sure to be just as crisp and clean.

“Do you want your star light turned on?”

“Yeah, Mom. Please.”

She brushes his russet hair away from his eyes, then switches on the rotating lamp that throws a whole galaxy of stars up against his walls and ceiling, constantly in motion. It’s a cool device.

“Good night, Lucas. Sweet dreams.”

“G’night, Mom.” He speaks on a yawn, “Love you…”

“I love you, too, Pumpkin.”

The laptop is retrieved from the upstairs library and brought down to the living room, where her Lord is waiting for it. He smiles as she hands him the case handle first. “Thank you, my dear.”

Claudia inclines her head. “You’re welcome. Is there anything else you desire?”

“Have you finished the invitations for the Chetwynd-Hayes’ party?” At her slow head shake, Sir frowns. “You’d best hurry, then. I will be giving them to Melinda tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, My Lord.” Claudia goes back upstairs with all due haste, grumbling internally all the way up. She has a steady hand for calligraphy, and she likes doing it — the end result was always so pretty — but she had taken physical therapy today and she was sore and headachy and just wanted to go to bed. But they have to be finished tonight, and her Lord loves to offer her services to his friends and colleagues. She doesn’t want to disappoint him. Melinda Chetwynd-Hayes works with him at the Chapter House, doing… whatever it is that Knights do.

She isn’t entirely sure what the Knights of Saint Christopher are all about. They are a private research institute of some sort, with branches scattered all over the world. Her Lord never talks about his work, but he seems a bit fanatical. It makes Claudia just a tiny bit uneasy. But who is she to talk?

She had been invited to the Philadelphia Chapter House twice. The first time was at the invitation of a young man she’d just met – Lucas’ father. The second time was a farewell party for the same young man. He was going back to the Dublin House. He was never to find out that their short liaison had borne fruit. That was also the night she had met Russell Derleth. The night she came home with him to stay. Was that really six, almost seven years ago?

She toils over the calligraphy for what seemed a year. She hears Mrs. Berger, the housekeeper, switch off her television and retire for the evening. A dog barks across the street. Claudia hears the front door open and close. That was odd. Had she forgotten to get the mail?

Neck screaming after hunching for so long, Claudia stands carefully and stretches. The desk drawer yields nothing but an empty prescription bottle. Shit! There was a bottle of over-the-counter painkillers in the kitchen drawer. The water tastes better filtered, anyway.

On her way to the kitchen, she hears conversation in the living room. Who was over this late? Her first impulse is to greet the visitor and offer refreshment. It would be impolite not to do so.

“We must have him tested. He could figure quite prominently in our plans.” The visitor is Mr. Matheson, an elegant but vaguely creepy man who always makes her wonder if the Knights are nothing but an especially polished cult. She pauses at the door. Perhaps she needn’t disturb them.

“Isn’t he a bit young?” her Lord asks, sounding doubtful.

“The younger the better. It makes them much more pliant and easier to train.”

“What about Claudia? She’s his mother. She..”

“Don’t you have his mother well in hand, Russell? She has no say in this. You know this has to be done, especially if he’s as strong as we suspect he is…”

The voices drone on, but Claudia is beyond listening. They are talking about her son. They are talking about Lucas!

woman's arm in pleated sleeve, hand on stained wall
Silence

Driven by panic, she moves stealthily up the stairs, as quickly as she dares. Lucas is in danger. They have to get out of there. Tonight.

Reinvention

The scissors shake in the mirror, but the blades close with a snick, and another long strand of hair drops to the ground. Crap. Why was this so hard? There was one more strand of hair at the back, and it doesn’t take long for that to go. Then she pulls the plastic gloves on and starts mixing the chemicals to squirt into what hair was left — only one bottle, it’s that short. After a few minutes she has to turn the fan on in the tiny bathroom because it smells so bad. This is the second set time the bathroom has been filled with these fumes.

She pokes her head around the flimsy door and looks at her child. He’s exhausted, sleeping hard, his face still red from his earlier tears. His hair looks patchy now that it’s dry, mostly auburn brown, with a few golden-red spots. He had squirmed and cried while she applied the dye, tired, hungry, and confused by the long bus ride to an unfamiliar place that did not resemble a theme park.

The lights of Kansas City leak through the cheap curtains, and the roar of the traffic from the interstate competes with the wheeze of the heating unit under the window. She wants to sleep, but it’s probably not going to happen. She hadn’t been able to sleep on the bus, either, with all of the curious eyes she’d felt sliding over them. As soon as they got off the bus, she’d dragged her whining child to the nearest Saint Vincent dePaul to purchase some clothes that didn’t look like they came from Neiman-Marcus. There had been no time to pack with care when they left. She regrets her panic now, wishes she had chosen with more care. Can’t be undone.

Her cell phone is gone, too, memory wiped, boxed Priority Mail, addressed to a stranger in Bangor, Maine, and mailed during a rest stop. She would have liked to keep it, but it was a fancy model with GPS.

After she steps from the shower, the worst of the stink washed out of her hair, she stares hard into her eyes in the mirror.

She can do this.

She has to do this.

But who is she now, the tall woman with the short black hair and the uneasy eyes? A single mother, sure, someone with nowhere to go, no skills to market. The closer to the truth, the better — and this is closer to the truth than is comfortable. She’s never held a conventional job, has nothing to put on a resume. She daren’t use her credit cards, even if they haven’t been canceled. She doesn’t even want to use her driver’s license, her social security card. They are all ways that she can be tracked, can be trapped.

How is she going to protect her son? He’s only six, an unwilling party to her deceit. How can she explain this to him without destroying his world? How will she get him what he needs to grow up healthy and happy?

She sighs at all these questions that she has no answers for yet, bundles up their expensive clothes, the stained towels, and her hair to be thrown in two or three different dumpsters, and turns off the bathroom light. They’ll buy another set of bus tickets to a random destination in the morning, after a breakfast of stale Pop-Tarts.

She’ll find the answers.

She has to find them.

ballet dancer stretching and preparing shoes
Stretching

Another Burial

Emotional things are always easier for dogboy. Dogs don’t obsess about the past or worry about the future, and sometimes life is just impossible any other way.

Evonne is finally sleeping, curled in a corner of her marriage bed. Her husband P-boy is away right now, working on one of those off-shore oil rigs that are so dangerous and pay so well. Their house needs a roof, and their credit isn’t worth shit at Lowe’s. There’s a rocking chair sitting in the corner of the bedroom, with P-boy’s battered old rub board propped up on it, leaning against the old flannel shirt that he always wears when he’s working on the house.

Evonne’s arm is slung around the big shaggy black dog next to her, and it takes a minute for Hal to wiggle out from underneath without waking her. Her damp pillow smells salty, but her groin doesn’t. That’s good. He’d be able to tell if she had started bleeding again. He’d cleaned her up as thoroughly as he could earlier, in human form. She’d been way too weak to do it herself, so someone had to.

Evonne didn’t have any mother or sisters or aunts to do for her. Hal had been the only one on hand when she suffered the first miscarriage, alone in the swamp gathering herbs. After that, he was the only one besides her husband that she let near her when she was in distress like this. She was ashamed to let anyone else know that she had lost four babies now. Of course, P-boy knew, but he kept his peace. The two of them had supported Hal for years, encouraged his leadership, offered sound advice. Since P-boy was away so often, trying to find work as a oil rig roughneck, she relied on Hal more than was comfortable. But Evonne would go through this alone if he didn’t help her; she was stubborn as a goat.

woman's neck, photo by Danielle Aidan
woman's neck, photo by Danielle Aidan

He slipped out of the bed and padded into the kitchen, to the water bowl he had left on the floor. Evonne’s well was going brackish again — the water tasted awful. After a long and necessary drink, he pushed the screen door open with his nose and trotted out to the back porch. A sad little bundle lay on the grill prep table out there, wrapped in an embroidered pillowcase that had been a wedding present from Evonne’s grandmother. Hal urine-marks the legs of the table again, and the perimeter of the porch for good measure. The warning is effective; there is no predator scent anywhere near the back of the house. Dogboy smells big and scary to almost anything in the swamp that’s looking for scraps.  And the bundle on the table is little more than a scrap.

This one is deformed, so the stillbirth is a blessing, even though Evonne can’t seem to wrap her mind around that. The swamp they lived in was tainted somehow — people grew old and gnarled before their time, or got cancers, or gave birth to defective babies. Some people got born all wrong, somehow mixed up with bits of animals.

Someday Hal was going to find the reasons behind all of this, find out who was doing this and make it stop. It was his birthright to lead his people, to protect them. He would find a way.

When it was light enough to see, he would find the place that the other babies were buried and dig a grave for this one. Since Evonne wouldn’t let Father Ollie know about her troubles, Hal would have to say a makeshift prayer over the small one before covering her with earth. That would have to be enough.

He lays himself down on Evonne’s back porch, props his head on his front paws, and waits for dawn.

Nicky’s Bar and Grill

Hal swings his truck into the parking lot of Nicky’s Bar and Grill. It’s fair crowded, but then again, it’s a Saturday night. A week’s worth of construction pay is burning a hole in the pocket of his jeans. Auntie won’t be overly pleased about him blowing pay, but she won’t boude about it. Just as long as he’s not too hung over to go to church on Sunday. She knows that he works his ass off, even though it doesn’t often pay paper money. But tonight, he has cash in his pocket. Laissez bon temps rouler!

He parks the truck next to a battered Chevy, waves to the man sneaking a smoke in the parking lot. He won’t be the one to tell P-boy’s wife that he’s started with the cigarettes again. Nobody’s business but his own. The battered screen door bangs shut behind him as he enters the familiar bar. Hell, it’s the only bar, for miles and miles.

Hank Williams Sr. is blaring full blast on the jukebox. There’s usually live music on Friday, but their fiddler Rene is home sick with the flu, so the boys have given it a rest. People are dancing anyway, wherever there’s free space. Nicky’s is pretty small, a neighborhood bar really. Nobody here but us freaks.

Lucida Ramirezi is tending bar. Red and white flashes from the black plumage on her arms as she pours drinks. She pours a tall glass of Budweiser without being asked, sets it on the bar for him. If he had half the memory she has, he’d be dangerous; she probably knows what everybody in the damn bar drank, how much is riding on his or her tab, who last got into a bar brawl, and how much property damage it had caused.

“Got paid this week, cher?” she asks with a grin.

“Yup.” He grins back, slaps a ten on the bar.

“Alleluia! Praise Jesus!” Lucida shouts.

That brings a young man with sharp hazel eyes to the bar. “Well, Lucida, does that mean we’ll be seeing you in church this Sunday?”

“Ah, Father, that seems unlikely. Let’s save church for the true believers, non?”

He shakes his head sadly, runs a hand through his short sandy hair. “Ah, cherie, you’re breakin’ my heart, you.”

She throws her head back and laughs, and it sounds like the trilling of songbirds. “Ah, Father, you’ll live.” She serves him another beer to soften the blow.

open live music sign on wooden door
sign on the door

Hal hitches himself onto a barstool, looks around the crowded room. There are lots of couples here, dancing close on the dance floor, playing pool. There are a few single girls clustered in a group over by the jukebox, giggling. Safety in numbers, maybe? They’re from the Back Forty, he sort of recognizes them — they look barely legal. Now that’s just trouble on the hoof. And they are posturing like a wary herd of antelope. That’s the problem being a zoomorph, everything takes on an animalistic tone, like one of the especially bizarre shows on Animal Planet.

Even with all the strangeness around him, sometimes he feels like a freak. It’s not always very comfortable in his skin. About a quarter of the people here have some sort of deformity or disability, and maybe a quarter have at least a few animal features. Some of them have two forms, humanoid and animal. But nobody else has more than one, much less five. Only him. And only a few, male or female, are as attractive as his human form is. He’s learned how to use this to his advantage, but it’s hard to be vain in the swamp. There’s no money for that kind of foolishness, and he’s not sure he’d have the patience anyhow.

He smiles at the girls by the jukebox, tucks his long black hair behind his ears, and they giggle and wink at him. Hmmm, not worth the trouble. He’s got a seat at the bar, a bowl of peanuts, and a cold beer. He’s tired of trying to pick up girls. Sometimes they get tired of the jokes and the magic tricks, want him to settle down and be serious all the time. The ones that don’t get tired of his sense of humor get scared shitless by Goblin Boy. The sharp tusks, knobbly toes, and scaly clawed hands were… intimidating. Shit, he wasn’t that bad, once you got past the foul breath, but he sure knew how to scare girls off. Well, except for Aunt Frog, and she raised him. Nothing scared her.

“So, mon frere, why you makin’ a bahdin? Why frown when when you got money in your pocket and a Bud in your hand, eh?” Father Ollie looks concerned, like the priest he is.

“Ah, ain’t nothin’. Been awhile since I’ve had a beer. Guess it’s makin’ me melancholy.”

They both turn toward a squabble near the pool table. The Chu Sisters have been sharkin’ some poor fool, and now he’s getting all up in their faces with the testosterone. Now, how could anybody be that stupid? Hal pops up off his barstool, a drink in either hand. As he ambles up, Kelli and Kerri leave off the belligerent man and come to Hal, taking the drinks from his hands. He wasn’t sure what they were drinkin’, but Lucida knew. He owes that girl a kiss and a hug.

“Now, ladies, why you messin’ with some poor drunken man who is obviously no match for you both? That is just purely unfair.” Hal gives them a very broad smile and tries to look innocent.

Kelli glances at Kerri before giving Hal a sweet, coy look. “Now, Hal, you know that we’re just playing. A little fun on a Saturday night.”

He pulls out a Rakish Smile from his bag of tricks, gazes into her slitted yellow eyes. “Ah, but Kelli, you like to play rough sometimes. He wasn’t doin’ anything but bein’ drunk and pissed by being rolled by a coupla girls who probably said they didn’t know nothin’ ’bout playin’ pool…” He bats his eyelashes and puts on an exaggerated naive expression. He’s seen them hustle before. They were good, looked like nothin’ more dangerous than a pair of housekittens until the fool put his money up, and then it was all sharp smiles and slitted eyes. Poof, the money was gone, just like that.

girl in cheetah makeup, photo by Franco Rubartelli
photo by Franco Rubartelli

Not one of Nicky’s regulars would even dream of playing pool with either of them, but there were always new people coming in, wolf mongrels off the Underground Railroad, new circus people, a trucker or two from Fozzie’s crews who thought that two girls were no match for him.

Hal edges closer to them, fixes a serious look on Kerri. She was the leader of the two, the one more likely to give him information. “Did you two hear ’bout that girl, the one who got smacked around in Ellison’s for buying formula for her baby instead of cigs for her boyfriend? Heard that Miz Ellison almost called help to the store before that boy laid off her.” Hal knew it wasn’t the first time he’d lit into his girlfriend — that boy had an evil temper. Hal had been keeping an eye on him. So had the border guards, when they were around.

Kerri blinked wide eyes at Hal, batting her eyelashes. “Why Hal, we don’t know nothin’ ’bout no abusive asshole…”

Kelli nods. “And absolutely nothing about how he disappeared into the swamp, like he was walking off the edge of the world.” She smiles sweetly at Hal. “Want to play some pool?”

Well, now at least he knew that the poor little girl with the baby wouldn’t have to worry ’bout buyin’ cigarettes anymore.

“Sure, darlin’, but only if it’s not for money. I need to bring some of this cash home to Frog or she’ll skin me alive. I’ll buy you another drink, though.”

So they drift over to the pool table for a game or two. The girls sip their drinks and flirt prettily with him, purring. They prefer prey animals, but he knows that he’ll do in a pinch. He knows these girls. They’re still flirting with him as they walk through the parking lot a half an hour later, patting his ass and wrapping themselves around his hands like housecats. It’s time to go home, and not alone.

And if he has to disinfect a few cat scratches in the morning, that’s just the price he’ll have to pay.

single cat claw pulling green fabric
cat claw

Toil and Trouble

“Hahahaaa,” Haroldine cackles in her gravelly voice. With a flourish worthy of her nephew Hal, a box of chocolates appears on her scarred kitchen table. A soft breath of awe comes from the other two women sitting there. The store down the road certainly doesn’t carry delicacies like this.

“Gaaaaawwwdaaaaaaaammm,” Steve breathes.

Penelope’s papery voice sighs in appreciation. This is a treat.

“That Hal, he loves his aunties,” Haroldine states with no small satisfaction.

“So, where isss our loquacious boy?” Penelope asks, catching her breath, the chocolate melted down and swallowed with gusto.

Haroldine squints and sighs. “Dunno. Out runnin’ round, somewhere, I s’pect.”

The other two groan and slump; Steve thumps her head on the table. “Oooooh-weeee!” she exclaims. “That Amy, was it?”

“Uh-huh,” Haroldine grunts. She pops another chocolate into her mouth with a resigned air.

“She isss not the one,” Penelope states with great conviction.

“Huh! How you know that?” Steve scoffs. “There been three this last year. A year, Penelope! The boy’s bein’ ripped up, sure ‘nough. And you sit there with your mumbo-jumbo bullshit about fate, gonna send her away–”

Penelope snorts. “I did not send thissss Amy away. She sends herself away.” She considers, the flyaway gossamer of her hair floating every which way as she tilts her head. “Now that horrible Annette, her I sent away!” The memory of just how she sent the girl away makes her shake with laughter. “That Annette, she would not make pretty younglings, no, not at all.”

Haroldine screws her wide mouth into a scowl. “He slips sometimes,” she says darkly, “and calls himself we and us when he thinks I’m not listenin’. I’m just ‘fraid he’s gonna crack up one of these days and not come back home.”

“See!” Steve bellows, as she glares accusingly at Penelope. The two women stare at each other like adversaries for a moment, Steve’s dark face creasing into wrinkles, Penelope’s light one smooth and serene as an alabaster figurine.

“I am helping him. You will see,” is all the spider-lady says. She takes another chocolate and pops it into her mouth.

“Are NOT!” Steve bellows.

“Ladies,” Haroldine’s voice cuts through the argument with authority. She’s dealt with enough temperamental creatures, including her own nephew, to know what tone of voice to take. This time it’s the cut-the-shit-voice.

Steve looks abashed at losing her temper. Penelope pushes the barely-bitten chocolate out of her mouth with her tongue. It’s coconut cream. She hates those, and it always seems like she’s the one who finds them.

“Gimme that,” Steve grumbles, snatches the chocolate off Penelope’s palm, and pops it into her own mouth, mumbling about wasteful persons.

rows of multicolored truffle candy
Sweet Treats

Penelope tries another chocolate. The next proves to be edible. She tilts her head, thinking. “So… Harold and Amy were kissing, and — ”

“They was doin’ more than kissin’, I think,” Haroldine admits, then shrugs. “Maybe not. I do try to mind my own business.”

“An’ then she says thanks, but no thanks,” Steve finishes grimly. “Poor boy. Third one this year.” She shakes her head of short salt-and-pepper curls. “And then he took off, yeah?”

Haroldine nods. “Yep. Snortin’ and buckin’ and squealin’ fit to beat the band. Haven’t seen him since.” Changing forms is not a bad thing, all three of them know that. Zoomorphs that can change form need to shift once in a while, or there’s hell to pay. Muscle cramps and dehydration are the least of it. Sometimes they just waste away. Hal doesn’t seem to have any problems shifting out — the problem is shifting back to human. Sometimes he’s stuck in something else for days. It causes Haroldine no end of grief.

Penelope daintily picks through the remaining treats, chooses one, and bites into it. Coconut again. She silently turns it over to Steve, who pops it into her mouth without comment. “Someday,” Penelope whispers, “someday, our Frog Prince will meet his Princess. I will make sure of that, I will.”

An Unexpected Visitor

For once, the bayou sky is a clear, pure blue, and the air isn’t so thick with humidity that you feel like you could dive in and splash around. Estelle is weeding the scattered plants that serve as a garden, a cucumber vine growing over here, three tomato plants against the side of the shed, a zucchini dominating a patch of scrubby ground cover. The random placement helps keep the house hidden from casual view; neat rows of plants would be much too conspicuous. Claudia thinks Estelle may be eating the pests that were attacking the pepper plants, but she really doesn’t want to know.

Pen is on the roof of the shed with a few roustabouts from the Circus, repairing the shingles. A few of them curse like sailors. Dia wishes they wouldn’t, but the kids seem too distracted to notice. Dav and Lucas are busy building some sort of apparatus cobbled together from an old Boy Scout manual and a thirty-year-old copy of Popular Mechanics. No idea what the heck it is, or what it’s supposed to do. It’s possible that they don’t even know yet. Marcie is splashing in her wading pool and trying to drown her baby doll, saying she’s a mermaid. The poor thing keeps sinking to the bottom head first. Claudia will pop the dolly’s head off and empty her cranium of water once Marcie comes out of the pool and gets dried off.

anatomical detail drawn on woman's back
stretches and strains

The humidity is low enough that laundry would actually dry on the line, if she were able to hang it out. But her joints ache like she’s sick with the flu, and she just can’t seem to concentrate. She’s read up on fibromyalgia since she was diagnosed six years ago. It read like so much bafflegab to her, the reams of research and test results and academic speculation. The local clinic doctor still didn’t know exactly what it was. Still didn’t know how to cure it. Thank god that fibro isn’t degenerative. It’d be depressing to think that the symptoms are just going to get worse and worse. She shifts with a grunt on the boards of the back steps, rubs one knee through the old sweatpants that Pen loaned her to keep her joints warm.

The overgrowth by the kitchen window rattles. Claudia turns her head very carefully toward the sound and squints her eyes. Estelle taught her this trick — Pen’s girlfriend usually snubbed her utterly, but she had apparently been in a mellow mood. Estelle said that seeing wide, front-facing eyes glinting can make prey animals run. If you want to see them, you have to be slow, easy and nonthreatening. She’s seen lots of deer and nutria since she’s been here. Maybe the rattle is the pretty doe with the white-rimmed ears…

It’s not a doe. It’s a horse.

The animal emerges from the undergrowth, eying Claudia’s half-eaten apple greedily. She slowly–ever so slowly–sets the fruit down on porch as far away from her as she can reach. Then she leans back, turning away slightly, head bent. An invitation to approach.

bay horse head and neck
Determined Visitor

It takes three careful steps toward the apple. It’s a deep bay, almost black, shading to cocoa on the flanks and ribs, and looks sleek under the patchy coating of swamp mud. A male, not wild. He’s much too refined to be a scrub stallion, with beautiful clean-made fetlocks and a short strong back. His long forelock falls over his dark eyes, and he flings it off with a toss of his head.

Two more steps. He’s almost there. The twitching of his tail betrays his inner turmoil, but he wants that apple. His nostrils flare as his neck snakes out, one wary brown eye fixed on Claudia.

Then Marcie squeals in the pool, throttling the poor dolly, and the animal wheels and kicks his heels in the air, vanishing into the underbrush with a squeal of his own.

The apple has vanished as well.

Lucas comes running up, nearly bursting. “Mom, did you see that? That was a horse! I bet Dav and I could build a trap for him, I bet we could catch him…”

“Mom,” he asks breathlessly, his eyes alight, “can we keep him?”