All posts by Helen O'Loughlin

Blog post: Halsey’s If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power And Why I Couldn’t Stop Thinking About It.

CW: Content warning for discussion and mention of abuse, intimate partner violence and rape. If those are subjects that mean you will feel uncomfortable, please be advised they are throughout.

Also, spoilers for the film all the way through.

I have been arrogant. I am guilty of thinking that someone younger than me could not possibly create art that speaks to my experience as a woman. Intellectually I know it’s not true. But the thought crosses my mind, and I don’t allow myself the joy of certain art because I assume it has nothing of interest to say to me.

This is where I lay that thought to rest.

I had yet to listen to any of Halsey’s music when I came across their poetry book “I Would Leave Me If I Could”. It quietly blew me away. The stunning sharp jabs at my own feelings. It was the title that initially drew me in. Who doesn’t feel that way sometimes? Isn’t it universal, feeling like you’re unloveable, unbeautiful and unfuckable? It’s profoundly uncomfortable when an artist takes thoughts and feelings you believed were yours alone and exposes them to the world. You haven’t said these things to anyone but it’s as if they’ve just taken away the flimsy stage flat you were hiding behind and the spotlight is on you with the whole audience staring mutely.

Like Bart Simpson says, “it wasn’t me.”

Oh yes, yes it was.

It was with excited anticipation that I bought a ticket for Halsey’s next release, the film If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power, the accompaniment to the album of the same name. I certainly wasn’t the youngest person there, but it was hard to deny how much younger the audience skewed. The excited chatter of groups of friends. Peaks of laughter, bated breath as the film started. None of us knew exactly what to expect. And an hour later as the credits rolled, we marched out, the buzz of conversation now on the film itself.

I went home. My mind was not blown. I enjoyed it. I had no regrets. But I came away thinking that apart from one plot point nothing I saw was a surprise.

Intimate partner violence, women being silenced and having their power taken away, these are all to be expected from a story about a woman in a period piece. Set in a stylised 17th Century monarchy, unless it’s a romance or a comedy it’s going to include all of the above and sometimes even then!

As my friends casually enquired if I’d had a good evening I found myself sending longer and longer messages about the visuals, the story, the themes and the conclusion. My brain wouldn’t let it go, it was like an earworm, except for film. Thought after thought after thought. Messages and conversations that began with “another thing crossed my mind” or “I was also thinking about.”

I decided to spare my friends further navel gazey messages and put it here instead.

Let’s start at the end. The part that did give me a slight surprise.

Queen Lila dies.

So many stories about female empowerment and fighting against systematic misogyny would end with the woman succeeding. In a different telling of this story Lila would rally the people and the other nobles, forcing out her old-rule-following enemies, embodied here by The Aristocrat and The Matriarch as the poe faced twin pillars Patriarchy and Complicity. Lila would finish the tale on the throne, a new regime of her making about to unfold. Have you ever noticed that in many of those stories that’s where it ends? The promise of a better tomorrow but without showing you what that is. In its own way this film does show us.

The linear start point here is when the King dies and from Lila’s reaction this is not unwelcome news. Again, in other stories this would be the happy ending. But as the lyrics in “Tradition” say: this is not a happy ending. This song here at the start of the film, not just forewarning but possibly also telling us that a traditional happy ending isn’t coming.

We watch as rather than being able to celebrate her freedom from violence she is subjected to the tyranny of disgust at daring to show evidence of that violence, criticised for her drunken behaviour with friends and being told she doesn’t matter. That the child she carries, if it’s a boy, is important.

We see those good time girl friends abandon her once she becomes a mother: no solace to be found there. And no matter what she does including running away, Lila is always at the mercy of those with the power. She is trapped, recaptured, and then killed. Pessimistically that’s the real coda to those stories I mentioned before. Because one climactic defiant act doesn’t topple the whole system. For every Happy Ever After hovers the dark cloud of what comes next. It reminds me of Schmendrick’s words in The Last Unicorn: “There are no happy endings. Because nothing ever ends.”

And so it is with systematic oppression. It’s like a Whack-A-Mole. You smack it down here and it pops up again over there. The myriad ways it expresses itself are baked into If I Can’t Have Love I Want Power. I’ve already mentioned Queen Lila’s playmates abandoning her once she is known to be pregnant. One of the main themes Halsey has said is represented is the Madonna/Whore dichotomy. The inability for society to accept that women can be anything else but one extreme or the other. I feel it is important to note here that the only time Queen Lila wears an extremely lowcut complete cleavage-baring dress is when she is dressed for the King. She dresses in eye catching but much less revealing outfits the rest of the time. Presumably if she’s dressed like that for his pleasure then it’s different, isn’t it?

The Aristocrat outright states that she will not go quietly. Constantly watching her and policing her movements. In this world once her husband is dead her title means nothing and whatever power it bestowed is removed. Her two bids for freedom see her chased and dragged back to the castle, one with her behind actually bars. She begins and ends the film in shackles and a choker. Beautiful, bejewelled and diamond encrusted but merely gilding on a cage. Dressed up for show but leashed. Is it a little on the nose to show the maidens who serve Queen Lila bathing and dressing her for her execution in a “other women helped get her here” way? Maybe.

This film doesn’t give us an easy alternative either. On the flip side of all of this misogyny is a supposedly unwelcome form of femininity. The Seer is the only consistent safe haven and non-judgemental force in her life. Living alone in the deep woods, in the stereotypical trappings of an outcast woman, whose power of intuition predicts the pregnancy. Naming her The Seer neatly sidesteps the offensive use of witch or wiccan and instead gives her something specifically dangerous to power. The ability to see. See through it and see where things are going, because blindly following those in power can and does lead down the truly dark paths. But seeing and questioning are not tolerated. When The Aristocrat catches up with Queen Lila, he removes the safe place she escaped to, burning the wood and thatch cottage down and presumably killing The Seer. Cutting her off from the only connection he cannot control.

Except Queen Lila has never been alone. From the moment the Kings body is discovered Lila has been visited by the spectre of a darker sister. Lilith, a shadowed and terrifying counterpart she glimpses in mirrors and half waking moments. When Lila retreats to her now private bed chamber Lilith visits her and appears to help the Queen enjoy her own body. Lilith then attacks her, a replica of the betrayal when a bed mate brings violence into such a vulnerable place. We find out towards the end of the film that Lila poisoned the King and we are left to wonder, is this a part of her? Is there something evil inside Lila? She goes to the bath house to “cleanse” herself all to the song “Lilith” which includes the words “I’ve been corrupted.” But Lilith is still there in her reflection.

Lilith is the only other person present at the birth of Queen Lila’s child and it coincides with the flashback to the murder of the King after he beats and probably rapes her. Intercutting the King’s death throes with the birthing pains highlights the mirroring of the two parts of the life cycle of every human. Birth and death.

That was what I realised about this piece. Everything Queen Lila, and by extension all women, go through is just a part of our lives. There is a moment when Lila is shown lying down, a blank dead-eyed expression on her face as she is rhythmically moved by an external force. Immediately the audience is supposed to connect what we are seeing with rape. It turns out to be Lila’s handmaidens, attempting to manipulate her arms and legs into or out of a dress. It’s a fairly mundane moment, servants helping dress a member of royalty. But we now see the direct link between violence and the everyday.

It’s a snapshot of the whole film. It’s not about just individual traumatic events it’s about the constant wash of them.

The montage in the middle that marks time using Lila’s pregnancy isn’t of a woman plotting reprisal and consolidating power. It’s the mundanity of existing without hope of change. The real horror story is realising you cannot change it yourself.

Writing this piece has been tough. The more time I spent thinking about the film, listening to the album (and eventually rewatching the film) I thought of more and more things I wanted to point out and say isn’t that cool and clever? I told friends that the film was so full of ideas and themes that the one hour running time couldn’t do them justice and would love to see Halsey write something using fewer ideas but explored thoroughly.

Upon reflection I was wrong. The strength of this film is reining in the impulse to linger on every idea. It’s not necessary to go over every tiny detail like I was bent on doing. As I said before, none of these things are a surprise, I’m familiar with them and have been taught about them from a young age either explicitly (my mum teaching me about consent when I was 7) or by experience (hello, I’m a human woman).

Since the films debut we have had, in the UK alone, the needle jab drugging’s in Birmingham, the trial of Sarah Everards killer and the murder of Sabina Nessa. Every time the news was chock full of “what can women do to make themselves safer?” queries and the blowhard attempts to definitively answer them. I think an article by Bethan Bell for BBC News put it best: “if a woman is murdered by a man she doesn’t know, it is because he wanted to murder her. There is no other reason.”

Then on the heels of that the worn out but true fact that murder by a stranger is rare. A woman is more likely to be murdered in her home. Lovely.

 The “safety work” which becomes known as “common sense”. As Bethan Bell writes in the same article, “We all make sure we have a fully-charged phone and do that spikey weapon-grip with our door keys at the same time as checking nobody is following us inside. We text when we are “home safe” and wait up until we hear the same from our companions. This is normal. This is accepted. This is part of being a woman.”

The threat of powerlessness is something over half the population lives with everyday. So why not overwhelm the audience to give them a taste of the sheer weight of all this trash we have to put up with? When Halsey told Zane Lowe during their Apple Music interview that “this is not a girl power album” what are we left with if not a nihilistic certainty this is all there is?

Because Queen Lila dies.

At the beginning of the film Queen Lila being in shackles was out of context and allowed for ambiguity but now we know. In black with fierce make up she strides out and stares down the crowd from the balcony. She refuses to look ashamed and places herself in the guillotine. Because she knows that this is the worst thing they can do to her. The Aristocrat and the rest of the nobles and people expect, and perhaps want, her to fight back. But she doesn’t currently have the power they hold. Fighting back on their terms, words against words did nothing for her, no one was persuaded by her arguments. It is turned against her, look how emotional she is, look how out of control. So once she dies and Lilith meets her, they become more powerful together. Lila accepting all parts of herself and the darkness she originally feared has led to more power. The credits of the film show this new version of them making their way through a castle now littered with the bodies of Lila’s enemies. At one point they even pick up the crown that this has all been about before putting it back down. They don’t need it. And rather than endlessly haunt the castle, they leave, met by the words Halsey wrote to their partner: For Alev Aydin, and our greatest ERA of all.

Lila chooses to walk away rather than allow herself to become either what they wanted her to be or turn into that which she hates.

There are no definitive answers from this film. Halsey has said this album was about “taking my life back” and it feels like someone getting everything off their chest specifically so they can box it up and put it away. It’s left up to the interpretation of the viewer what to think. To me it is that at some point everyone has to have a reckoning with the systems in place over us, in this instance the Patriarchal system we exist in. Each of us has to decide whether to give in to it, fight it using its own tools or choose a third option, reject it and live your own way. Sometimes the real power move is walking away. Nothing was a surprise to me in the film, not because it was trying to show me something new and failed, but because it was holding up a mirror to the life I already live. And rather than trying to create answers for it or pat itself on the back for pointing it out the film simply says, it’s shit and it’s all the time. But it doesn’t have to be everything.

My favourite part of the premiere evening, film aside, was while waiting in a queue afterwards. A young woman was recounting to her friend how a different friend, who lives in Texas, had seen the film the night before and told her “I wasn’t ready for it. And then I saw it. And even though I’ve seen it I’m still not ready for it.” The pair of them laughed breathlessly in that way you do when you cannot agree more and are delighted someone else understands.

And you know what? Same girl, same.

Image from pixabay.

Not Glass But Diamond

diamond-1857736_1920

 It always seemed fragile, delicate, the way it allowed light to pass through it. It wasn’t particularly heavy or so I thought. I did always have that fear that it would break. I imagined the blow, inevitable as these things are. After all you can never protect something like that forever especially if you use it. Like anything you take out of its storage the more use it gets the more wear and tear happens.

And, just like that favourite plate, eventually it will be knocked against something hard or dropped. And if you give it to someone else, even someone you trust to look after it, even if you surround it with protection, they will eventually want to see it properly, to admire the light that shines through it so beautifully. But as lovely as they find it they could be careless and mishandle it. They might turn out to be someone who doesn’t pay proper attention to its care. Instructions get ignored sometimes. It happens. Complacency leads to negligence. And even if it only gets dinged a bit you can’t get rid of those scratches. You’re stuck with them. I’d seen how careless others had been with theirs. Though that’s not fair. As I just said accidents do happen. I can probably think of a couple of times I either scratched someone elses or came very close. I always tried to make amends but it’s never the same no matter how small the damage. Really all anyone can do is apologise and try never to do that again. 

The people who do the same damage over and over, they’re the ones to avoid. Not just complacent. Not just careless. Real negligence. 

Promises of change that are never kept are possibly one of the cruelest things we do to each other. 

I watched other people believe and thanked the universe I hadn’t been caught up in that. But then you find you trust the wrong person yourself. You don’t realise until its too late that you’ve fallen into the same trap as everyone else. Because at this point it does feel like a trap. You were kept there, breathlessly waiting because they had possession of it. How much damage would be inflicted if you demanded it back. Would they do deliberate damage out of spite. At this point you’re not sure. Fear does funny things to us. But if you ask nicely will they dismiss you?  Refuse to return it. Greedy hands clutching and grabbing trying to keep all that beauty for themselves. Not malicious but definitely selfish. 

And then there’s the desire to show it off. To all their friends, “it’s going to be so great for them to see it”. “Just let them see it”. “No, they don’t have to reciprocate, that’s not the point, it’s about what you should be doing”. 

But what about my friends? I want to show it to them. They share theirs all the time with me. I should be able to use it for my own ends. After all that’s what it’s designed for. My own use. 

Eventually I tell. I don’t demand (too rude). I don’t ask (it’s not a request). I just say I’m taking it back. There’s a confusion, I don’t know why which confuses me no end. And I have it back it’s mine all mine. I hold it close and admire it. It’s not dull, it still shines. A few dings, but they’re not that noticeable, surely. Maybe. I’ll see with time. I’ve got to keep an eye out that I don’t worry over them incase I end up making them worse. 

Some of my people have been waiting  to see it for a long time and I’d like to take it to safe places. Plans are made. 

The crash I’d dreaded comes out of nowhere. It’s as bad as I suspected. Possibly worse for its suddenness. I’m still trying to sort that part out. But it didn’t break. I looked at it from every angle. Nothing I could see. It seemed miraculous and a bit unfair. 

Tougher than I ever supposed.  I’d heard so much about this type of thing. Why was mine exempt? Why was I exempt? Why was I not allowed to show the damage? Why was mine unmarked and denied evidence of the loss?

A small part of me marvelled that it was tougher than I thought.  Over and over I was assured that the break would happen. One day, just a light tap, all the unseen damage would fracture it into a million pieces. There would be no way to stop it. 

So the waiting began. I went back to my life, I looked at it occasionally. I definitely shielded it more than I had intended but the ever present worry  was there in the back of my mind. Days. Weeks. Months. I spoke to someone who knew about fixing them just in case but the break never came. 

And then one day the light was at its brightest and I saw it. Straight through the centre. A crack that reached from the top all the way through the centre. I only noticed it by accident because it was reflecting the light so wonderfully and clear. It was a straight, sharp sliver delving into the centre. It was a spear point. It couldn’t be moved or covered or buffed. If I wanted to admire it I had to see the crack. 

If it was straight through the centre it must be in danger of  breaking all the time. But I had to keep going. I took it everywhere. And as I brought it out and put it away over and over I realised it wasn’t as delicate as I had always assumed it must be. Despite the damage it wasn’t going to fall apart. It wasn’t going to split. The internal shape was forever changed. So I held it in my hands and I pressed. Harder. I tested it again. One more time. Not even a creak of glass against glass. It was more dense than I had thought, even after having it for so long. And the damage was severe. Permanent. But it was much tougher now.

Not glass but diamond. 

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.com used under creative commons licence.

Continue

Nothing was brighter.

That had never been explicitly promised. But, somehow, I had expected it anyway.

And I was alone. I knew everyone was waiting for me, at the other end of the valley. We would celebrate. All I wanted to do was sleep but I couldn’t. I had to get to them before night fell. At least then I might have help building the fire and making dinner. It wouldn’t all be on me.

I began to unbuckle my armour and let it slide off, clattering to the ground. My clothes were stiff with dried sweat and I noticed how bad I smelled. There were scratches and blisters on my skin, a couple of burns. They would heal, I hoped. I gently stretched. I felt heavy even without the armour.

My mother would have salve with her I was sure of it. My father would give me an appraisal and a pat on my aching shoulder. He’d probably laugh when I winced. I wanted him there to do that now.

I looked back over my shoulder at the huge maze I had just completed, the top of the ladder reaching up from the trench, my last climb to freedom. I could feel the dirt under my finger nails and the built-up grime from the…how long had I been in there?

Running my tongue over my teeth I felt the build-up of fuzz. A long time then. I closed my eyes and I breathed in deep. The air out here, on a gentle breeze, was fresher than the loamy, still air I had just left. It filled my lungs and I felt my chest expand almost painfully as I stretched myself out to take in as much as I could.

When I opened my eyes, nothing had changed. The sky wasn’t bluer nor the grass greener. The sun was shining but there were grey clouds rolling over head.

Hmm. It might even rain later.

I remembered the lead up to the maze. It had been the only choice I could make at the time, but it still felt as if there must have been another choice, somewhere, that I could have made. I just needed to find it.

Having suffered through it I was standing here on the other side and I suddenly realised how the world didn’t look any different. Why should it though, I had been fighting to get back here after all. It was the world I wanted to get to. Wasn’t it?

I looked at where I had just been and then in the direction I was headed. I glanced down at my armour. I still had to carry that with me. I didn’t want to lose it, I had fought hard to earn it. Surely it would be good for something in the future. Nothing hard won was ever a waste.

Piece by piece with stiff, cracked fingers I put the armour back on. It covered the bruises and cuts and kept some of the smell encased. That would be good as I travelled. I tested how fast I could walk. Not too fast.

Once it was all back on I set my gaze on my destination. Once I was there, with my family and friends, I would be able to rest. Possibly.

Well, maybe not right away.

But it would happen. I just had to get there first.

I had survived the maze. But I still had a way to go. I put one foot in front of the other and started walking.

I still couldn’t believe the world didn’t seem brighter. It was the same world I had left when I went into the maze. I was just on the other side.

 

Image from pixabay.com and used under Creative Commons

Wolves of Sorrow

 

The chalice rested on the stone plinth between them. She took a sip first. Once she’d placed it back down he picked it up and sipped. Some of it dribbled down his chin. As he caught the droplets on his newly smooth skin she caught the drop rolling down the side of the hammered pewter.

“Thanks,” he said, watching her check none had been spilled. She only nodded. She hadn’t spoken since they had entered. He wasn’t sure if it was some sort of reverence. There was no rule saying they couldn’t speak, he had asked. That had raised, well, it couldn’t raise eyebrows. The monks had none to raise. As supplicants neither did they anymore. His legs felt strange without any hair. Like his wife’s on their wedding night. Sweat beaded on his head. He knew it was going to roll into his eyes. He looked down at the long muslin tunic he had on.

“If you want to wipe your head with it you can.” He flinched when she spoke. “I’m sure the monks have seen much worse than sweat stains.” He pushed aside where that comment took his imagination and used the hem.

“I was more concerned with how you would feel.” She shrugged. He glanced at the entrance to their cavern. The byre was just inside, keeping them warm and able to see. He wondered if it was replenished during their vigil or if it was left to burn out. He checked the ceiling to see if any small creatures lived up there. She stood up and began to stroll around, stretching her arms out and rolling her shoulders. He sucked in a breath and glanced at the entrance again.

“Shouldn’t you sit down?”

“Hmmm?” She placed her hands on the wall, sliding them with fingers splayed, across the surface. She moved along the wall around the front of the cavern then came back towards him, her eyes closed.

“You’re going to trip over something. What if you hurt yourself? Will you have to start again? I don’t know the way out of here to get you help.” She smiled but continued back and forth.

“The only thing I could trip over is you.” He crossed his arms and shifted on his seat. A painful tingling began in his toes then moved to his heels, up to his ankle. Looking down he couldn’t see anything but would have sworn that it felt like insects biting him. He brushed his hands over his bare feet and winced as the pain was momentarily stronger. She opened her eyes at some noise he must have made and came to him, hands outstretched.

“Come over here.” He shook his head, hands holding the stone plinth rigidly.

“It’s better over here, I promise.” She prised the fingers of one hand off, then the other, slowly pulling him to his feet. He hissed at the pain in his legs and wondered if there were tiny insects they hadn’t been warned about. She pulled him closer to the byre. She twirled around like when she had danced as a young girl. The hem of her tunic swept closer to the byre. He reached for the hem, grabbing her to hold her still as he looked for flames catching the material. When he found no sparks, he checked for smoke marks.

“You shouldn’t dance so close to the fire.” He knelt, still checking. She stopped trying to dance and laid herself across his back.

“You always look out for me.”

“I have to,” he grunted. She was heavy on his back, he could feel the strain on his knees.

“That’s not true.” She sighed and it felt like she became heavier. “You didn’t have a very good example either.” As he tried to push her up movement from the entrance caught his attention. He was half grateful for some help and half expecting a reprimand, but it wasn’t one of the monks. It was a large grey wolf. It looked between the two of them. He couldn’t breathe. She whispered a soft “oh” and the wolf looked at her.

“Don’t move,” he replied but she was shifting and suddenly sliding off his back. As she landed she didn’t appear to try and break her fall. One hand was stretching out towards the wolf. The wolf dipped its head and stepped closer.

“No, no.” He grabbed her arm and dragged her up off the floor. She ended up kneeling but sank into a sitting position. He went to grab her under her arms and stumbled. He couldn’t feel his legs. The wolf was stepping closer. Another had entered the cavern behind the first. He put his arms around her, pulling her back and flipping them over. He realised as he did so that he couldn’t feel his fingers anymore. She was limp in his arms. He tried to drag his legs over hers and covered as much of her body with his own as possible.

The soft scuff of paws on the sandy floor came up on either side of them. He watched as the lead wolf snuffled at his face. It licked him with a tongue that was more rough and dry than he had expected. He felt pressure on his back. One had climbed on top of them. It kneaded his back, testing its weight. He sensed another behind his head, investigating them. The one at his face crouched down and shuffled closer to his sister. A noise erupted from his lips. It was meant to be a shout but he couldn’t move his mouth. The wolf pricked up its ears and flicked a glance at him. But it showed no more concern and its attention was soon back on her. The wolf on his back clambered down to join the lead wolf. Then he felt something on his waist. A nudging, then a scrape of something sharp. The belt around his tunic tightened. The last wolf was pulling him off his sister. He tried and failed to move, another noise coming from his throat. A fourth wolf had joined the group and was laying down along his sister’s side. Once he was several feet away the wolf who had removed him stepped over him, returning to the others. He screamed as best he could, a breathy noise that soon died as he lost control of himself. The wolves all glanced at him. The lead wolf snorted and as one they reached for her with their mouths open. His sight was dim, purple around the edges, getting tighter every second until nothing. The last sound he heard was a wet noise.

 

The next thing he heard was the rustle of material and soft murmuring. His body felt tired but his mind was suddenly clear. He tried to listen for his sister’s morning singing. She usually did it when she thought no-one was listening, so he always stayed in bed a little longer, so he wouldn’t disturb her. But this morning she wasn’t singing. The wolves!

He shot up in bed, gasping. He was in a white tent, the sides billowing gently in and out. He was on a cot high up off the ground. His sister was sitting on a similar cot next to him, feet hanging over the edge, a mug in her hand.

“Hello,” she said brightly. He leapt off his cot and aimed to embrace her but his knees couldn’t support him so instead he grabbed her upper arms and looked her all over. Then he shook her gently.

“Are you hurt?”

“Only from where you dropped me. The sand was only thin on the ground so now I have a bruise the size of a house on my hip.” She held up the mug. “Sweet tea. You need to drink.” Slowly he took it, continually glancing at her trying to see if there were any cuts or nicks on her skin. She was back in her travel clothes. They had been cleaned. “Sorry the tea’s cold. You didn’t wake up as soon as I thought you would.” He barely tasted the tea. Giving her back the empty mug he moved to sit back on his cot. She grabbed his hand and guided him to sit next to her. He realised he was still in his tunic. At his neck was a leather tie with a small remembrance on it of a polished stone wolf. He looked at her. She had a leather tie with two remembrances, one a polished stone wolf too. “They were a gift. I didn’t buy them.”

“Did you know about the wolves?” She shook her head.

“They aren’t what usually appear to help those grieving. The monks said they came for something else.” She gave a small smile. “We’re very lucky to have seen them.” He made a noise that disagreed but weighed the remembrance in his hand. He went to ruffle her hair but patted her instead. His arm draped around her shoulders.

“Would you have come if you had known?” She was playing with the other remembrance. It was some grey fur tied with a thin piece of leather. After a moment, he nodded.

“Yes. Did you get what you needed?” She gazed up at him.

“Yes.” They smiled at each other and it was like seeing her after a long absence. He had missed his older sister. He took her hand and pressed it to his heart.

“Good. Can we please go home now?”

 

 

This was written for the Flash Fiction chllenge Ten More Titles Round Two over on terribleminds.com. The picture is by Sandra Petersen and from Pixabay.com, used under Creative Commons Licence.

One Fell Swoop

 

As Heather walked towards the office her fellow assistant Raif was making screeching noises.

“I can’t turn the key!” she cried as Heather reached her side.

“It’s the weather, the door swells sometimes.” Raif handed the keys over.

“I thought I had the wrong keys. I didn’t know how I could have got the wrong ones since I saw Neve lock up last night and she handed them straight to me…what are you doing?” Heather had put her bag down and perched on the slim doorstep. She tested her grip on the handle.

“When I say, turn the key.” With an indrawn breath, Heather threw herself backwards, one foot on the frame as leverage to help. “Now,” she grunted. Raif turned the key and the unmistakable pop of the lock sounded. Pulling herself up Heather went in.

“Aren’t you worried the handle will come off?” Raif handed Heather’s discarded bag over.

“Not really. It’s solid. I think in a place like this they like to make sure everything is in perfect condition.”

“Like a door that swells?” Raif said over her shoulder as she made her way out back. Heather began removing terminal covers and lifting screens. She listened for the comforting chime of the computer waking up. Stepping back, she waited longer. Then she felt along the edge of each one for the reset depression. Once she had tried every terminal she was back at the front row. No response.

She looked up at the security cameras. There was no blinking red light to indicate they were on. She moved quickly to the light switches. They didn’t work. Leaning closer she tried again. There wasn’t even the crackle of electricity.

The power was out.

She didn’t remember running to the back room but she crashed into Raif coming out, who was babbling.

“The outer door wasn’t working. I couldn’t get in. There was no air recycling, no noises! I was worried about the night guard but he wasn’t there. The door was open-”

“What? No!”

“I know!” Raif covered her face. “I heard a noise and ran. I think she’s loose.” Heather shoved Raif behind her and reached for the door. As she pulled it closed Heather thought a shadow moved in the murky corridor. The latch clicked and she gasped in relief. A scraping sound came through the door. Jumping back, she swallowed.

“That’s a metal door, it should hold her.”

“What about the rear exit?” Raif was stepping back and clutching at the edges of her jacket. Heather tried the office phone. There was no dialling tone.

“First we need to get Head Office on the phone.” Heather pulled at the fastenings on her bag, hands shaking, and rummaged inside.

“Where is it?” She hissed. Tipping the contents onto the floor and scrambling through the items frantically she remembered someone asking her why she carried these things with her. For emergencies, she had answered.

“Heather…” Raif whined quietly.

“Do you have your phone?” Heather started patting down her pockets. “Ah!” she cried, finding it in her side pocket. She unlocked the phone screen, finger shaking, making her attempt it three times before it opened. “C’mon, c’mon. Got it!” She pressed ring. Her speaker turned on as her fingers grabbed at the phone.

“PRISM GM.”

“This is site 43223, staff ID 195683 Hotel Mike. We have a power outage and containment breech. Asset is no longer secure.” There was a pause on the other end. Heather heard the buzz of the hold line then another voice spoke.

“A TEAM ARE ON THEIR WAY. CAN YOU GIVE ME MORE INFORMATION ON THE STATE OF THE ASSET?”

“Out of containment sector. Only regular doors securing it.”

“ARE YOU SAFE?”

“No,” came the answer from above where Heather was crouched. She looked up at Raif’s reply, the other woman was watching the ceiling. Following her colleagues gaze she saw the panels shifting up and down, the movement crossing the ceiling. Taking the phone off speaker Heather hissed into the mic, “negative.”

“GET OUT NOW, HEAD TO MAIN SECTION.” The line went dead.

Standing up Heather reached for Raif’s arm. Before they could move to the front door the panels shifted again and with a crash, shattered glass rained down outside, the window shaking from the impact. The asset landed on the street outside, shaking its head and beginning to turn towards them. They dived behind a terminal. There was another crash and Heather felt vibrations run through the floor, up her arms and into her shoulders. Heather slammed her hand over Raif’s mouth when she made a panicked noise. She pulled Raif in close and they clung to each other. The only sound she could hear was her breathing. Eventually Heather relaxed her hold. She signalled that she was going to look. Raif didn’t try to stop her. Creeping so slowly that she could feel her muscles quivering with the effort, Heather peeked out from behind the terminal and looked through the front window. The street was clear. Taking a calming breath, she crawled closer. Pain lanced up her arm but she ignored it.

“Heather!” Raif hissed.

“It’s ok.” Raif stood up slowly. “Careful,” Heather added whilst looking at her shredded hand, “there’s glass on the floor.”

“We need to make our way to Head Office for a debrief.” Heather looked for her keys, careful not to knock her hand.

“And get you some medical attention?”

“That too.”

Leaving by the front door, Heather tried the key. It still wouldn’t lock so, with an exasperated look at Raif, Heather perched on the doorstep and pulled on the handle again. As Raif reached to turn the key Heather felt herself falling. She landed hard, her head smacking on the concrete. Wincing and trying to take in a breath she brought her hand up, the handle still in it.

“Fu- ugh, we need to secure the door.”

“I think that’s a minor problem.” Raif was looking in through the window. It took Heather a moment to realise. The window was gone.

 

 

This was written as part of the Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction challenge, Ten Titles From You, over at terribleminds.com. Also, the thing about the door handle might amuse my friend Laura.

Featured image from pixabay.com and used under Creative Commons.

The Priceless Cabin Beyond The Water (part 2)

The provost marshal on duty checked the two women out of the Registration building and opened the private entrance. Despite the warning bell getting louder now they were outside, Alessia smiled when she saw Mas waiting. His yellow Lightmans cloak was blackened on one sleeve.

“Set yourself on fire?” He patted the smudge.

“Put one out.” He gave a warm smile for Bailey but Alessia had to take a moment to gather herself. The bells had only started a few minutes before she left. The damage to his sleeve was from something that hadn’t reached the main authorities. Mas caught her staring and shook his head almost imperceptibly over Baileys head. He kept up light amusing conversation for the girl as he and Alessia escorted her home. Bailey lived on the outskirts of town and it was almost dark by the time they watched her enter her home. Even in the twilight Alessia could see plumes of smoke dissipating.

The bell finally stopped. It didn’t relieve her because she knew it would ring again tomorrow or even tonight. It was the fifteenth bell this week and they were becoming more frequent. Mas held out his hand to steady her on a loose rock but didn’t let go once she took it. Alessia squeezed so hard she was convinced it must hurt. He made no comment.

As they reached her house she heard raised voices inside. She stopped at the gate and took a moment to look at the sky.

“I’ll say goodnight here,” Mas murmured. Giving him a tired smile she leant into him, his arms wrapping around her. Glass shattered inside. She turned her face into his chest and sighed. Mas rubbed her shoulder.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” she said. He opened his mouth to speak but a shout from inside drew her attention. Letting go she walked to the door. Just before she opened it she watched Mas walk to the end of her street. At the corner he stopped, turning to make sure she had gone in. She still remembered the way her face had heated when she noticed he did that. Now, as well as making sure she went in, he blew her a kiss. She waved and entered the house just as another door in the house slammed. Her Father was at the table holding himself up.

“Is he still here?” she asked. Her Father jumped at her voice and spun away but it was too late to hide the wetness on his face. Moving to him she held his arms to steady him. His bowed spine meant he was now shorter than her. His hand covered hers and tried to push her away.

“You haven’t forgotten what today is?” he asked.

“No, Father.”

“I don’t understand why it must be dragged out so. The boat arrives the same time every day. Why could I not have gone-”

“It’s for your own safety, Father. Once it’s past curfew…” she guided him to a chair by the fire. She heard a sniffle and pushed a handkerchief into his clenched fist.

“I know my darling.” He sighed. “It’s just so hard on you and Isaac.”

“No, Father. It’s not hard on me.” She made him a cup of tea and tried not to linger while she made it. “I can’t speak for Isaac. But don’t travel beyond the water thinking I struggled with it.” She sat at his feet with her own tea as he blew on his. After a moment, she put a hand on his knee.

“Tell me a story of Mother.” With a weak smile, and a sigh, he did. She leant her head on him and listened to his voice.

A soft knock on the door eventually interrupted them. The Lightmen she let in were wearing dark cloaks over their ochre ceremonial robes. She helped get her Father ready for the cold as their lead man ran through the order of events. They asked him some questions to make sure he understood as Alessia checked the house for Isaac. When she returned alone her Father nodded.

Past curfew they had to walk in silence so they attracted less attention. Alessia saw lit candles in darkened windows of some of the houses, the only well wishes that could be made. Her Fathers hand clutched her arm. His grip was weak, his pace slow but steady. She covered his hand with her own and felt the slight tremble of thin muscle under his papery skin. She caught him looking at her from under his hood and tried to give him a reassuring smile. The closer they got to the dock the stronger the smell of smoke. They heard voices and one of their escort motioned them to wait. He went ahead to investigate. She looked around. All the houses were dark here. One had thick black smoke marks rising from empty doors and windows.

Soon they were moving onto the shore and the docks came into view. A line of Lightmen guarded it, their robes bleached white by the moon. The gentle lapping of the water was matched by the sound of wood bumping against wood. The boat was moored. Her Father stumbled on the uneven ground. She went to catch him but one of their Lightmen held him up. The sleeve of his ceremonial robe peeked out from his cloak and she saw a familiar smoke mark on it.

“Mas?”

“You didn’t think I’d miss your Fathers departure.”

She tried to smile but her face was so cold it barely moved so squeezed his arm too. Mas took her Fathers weight allowing her to hold his hand. The sound of a wave rushing towards them had her looking over the water. A warning cry came from a Lightman as she realised it was the sound of people running down the beach. The line of Lightmen raised their arms, bows in hand and pointed over her head. She and Mas dragged her Father forward as he cried out in alarm. She stumbled on the sand and pitched towards the line. Hands grabbed her and forced her the rest of the way. Behind the line, she turned to see a crowd closing on the dock, some carrying torches.

“Alessia!” she recognized her Fathers voice and moved. She felt slow and useless, like running through water. Mas was heading onto the pier but her Fathers hand was outstretched towards her. She reached for him. His grip was so tight it was like he was a younger man again. She soothed him and whispered in his ear, reminding him of the cabin and that she would meet him there one day. With Mas helping to carry him, they headed along the pier.

She could hear orders being shouted, the thrum of bow strings releasing. Another Lightman ahead of them held the boat steady and they helped her Father in. Alessia lay herself down on the pier so she could keep hold of his hands. The warning bell rang out drowning out everything else. Her Father looked up at her, not out to the water as she would have expected. His face looked ghostly in the moonlight.

“What if your brother is right?” he cried.

“He’s not,” she replied and gripped his hand harder. His was just as strong. She felt his fear through their hands and knew it was up to her to let go. She clambered forward with her elbows so her Father could hear over the noise.

“Do you remember when Isaac was little? He asked you to write us a letter telling us what the cabin is like when you get there?” He nodded. “You will need both hands to write.” His smile quivered but he nodded again. They let go at the same time and she was sure he mouthed that he loved her. She watched until he turned to look into the fog.

The same moment the sounds on the beach broke through to her. Yelling had turned to screaming and acrid smoke smothered her. Mas dragged her up. The pier was on fire, their exit blocked. The other choice was deep black water. Mas took her hand and with a nod from her they jumped.

Her skin stung everywhere the water touched and her lungs felt like they were burning. For a moment, she thought she was on fire anyway. The current was strong and dragged her. Terrified she would be carried away from shore she thrashed. It took her a few moments to realise it was Mas pulling her through the water. He was heading further out and away from the riot. She needed air and tried to swim to the surface. He pulled her down again but she yanked her hand out of his and broke free. She could see muted light and headed for it. Her face broke the surface and she gasped in air. Water landed in her open mouth and she choked. She tried to cough it out but couldn’t find the surface again. Her sight was blurring and she knew it was tears as well. Kicking hard she breached the surface and swiped at her face. She was out of the water and sucked carefully through her lips but this time it was only air. Hands grabbed her from behind. She shrieked and beat her fists against her attacker. Her hands became tangled in clothing and they wrapped their arms around her. Their heads pressed together as she struggled Alessia finally heard Mas’ voice.

“It’s me! It’s me.” It was his cloak she was battling with. Balling her hands around what material she could find she pulled him closer. He pulled her back until she was lying on his chest, her face uplifted to the sky. It was easier to breath without the water crushing her chest. There was a flickering light. Turning to look she could see the entire dock was on fire. She knew Mas was watching too. She could see people running away and black clad bodies lying on the gold sand.

“Do you think the current will take us to the cabin?” she asked,

“It’s not that strong,” Mas answered and began to swim them to the shore.

 

 

Alessia dried her hair in front of the fire as Mas made tea. She had given him some of her Fathers clothes to change into and she couldn’t watch him like she usually did. Isaac was still not home. Despite being out of the water for a while her hands were still cold. She held them closer to the fire. She was startled when Mas covered her hands with his own and drew them back.

“You’ll get chilblains.”

“I know,” she sighed and took a cup from him. He settled on the floor next to her and took the blanket she offered. “I just can’t get warm.” Putting his cup down, Mas put her free hand between his and rubbed gently. There were occasional shouts in the distance. She tensed at every one. A board creaked outside and her head went up, looking at the front door expectantly. When it didn’t open, she turned back to the fire.

“I’m sure Isaac is safe.” Mas leaned loser with a smile of encouragement. She didn’t look up. “He’s a smart boy.” Alessia drew her hand back and wrapped the blanket closer.

“He’s not a boy. And he is smart. Which is why I’m so worried.”

“It’s a fad. Many of the youngest ones go through it.”

“In Botown’s history there has never been so much violence. And it’s not like there are missing records. I know. I checked. There’s no cover up, no conspiracy…” She sighed and slumped over. “I just wanted my Father safe.” Mas placed an arm round her shoulders and pulled her closer. She turned her face into his chest and let herself breath him in. The clothes smelled of her Father and of Mas. She had never felt so comforted.

A creak of a board and a stern knock had the pair of them leaping away from each other. When Mas opened the door for her several Lightmen were outside. They were carrying a stretcher, a cloak covering the head and shoulders. As a Lightman read her the charges against Isaac, and the punishment they had meted out, she stepped closer to the body. Her Fathers ring was on his finger. She removed it and looked at the blood speckled hand. The Lightman finished. In the silence the stretcher bearers swayed from foot to foot. Pale grey light was moving across them as dawn broke.

“Are there any charges being brought against myself? As his sister?”

“No, milady. It was clear that you were not mixed up with him and his…cohorts.”

“Then you can take him away and bury him with the other criminals.”

“Alessia-” Mas stepped forward and reached for her. She moved away from his outstretched hand and went inside. She returned with his still damp cloak and uniform, handing it over without meeting his gaze.

“I want all of you gone before my neighbour’s wake. I have no family now.” With that she turned and closed the door.

 

 

Picture used under Creative Commons Licence from Pixabay.com.

https://pixabay.com/en/inferno-bonfire-burn-flames-light-423408/

 

Door Ways

brown-20831_1280Every time Dee heard the kitchen door crack against its frame she looked up expectantly. It was loose in it’s frame,  the draft pulling it back and forth. It was years since a Door had appeared to her but this morning….she shook her head. She must have dreamt about it and the leftover tension was wearing. Turning back to the fruit on her board she continued chopping. Laughter from the play area  across the road came through the open window. It sounded like her girl. A glance instead showed her Cosima was sitting on a swing leaning forward, watching the other children with a furrowed brow. She had been quiet all morning and repeated attempts to engage her had led to an abrupt announcement that she was going out to play. Dee had been so surprised she let her go with no more questions. Now she was finding reasons to stand at the kitchen window and watch. Looking down at all of the fruit and vegetables she had now chopped up Dee put the knife down. Cosima was probably just reacting to her. She’d been jumpy all day. Despite knowing it wasn’t going to happen she still had this…she could only describe it as somewhere between an itch and a headache. Every time she had touched a door handle today she had held her breath. Looking at the kitchen door a final time she turned back to the chopping board. She would make a fruit salad for dessert. That would use up all this fruit.

The chicken she put in an oven dish with the vegetables looked as pale as the chicken Cosimas father, Dorian, had been served in hospital. It was like it had been boiled. It fell apart easily enough but smelled like plastic. He had joked that he didn’t have a sense of taste anymore so what did it matter. She had laughed for his sake. Cosima had slept silently on her lap, the beeping machines lulling Dee to sleep as well. She had dreamed that Dorian had forgiven her. When she had asked what for he had shown her the first wedding ring she had ever worn. With the feeling of falling she had woken to find he had passed in his sleep. Instead of just grieving she had felt angry. She had no reason to feel guilty or be forgiven but on the day he was buried and Cosima had gripped her hand painfully she thought maybe there was.

Feeling tears coming she clamped her eyes shut until it passed. The counsellor had told her to think of happier times, good memories. The problem was all the good memories led to the final thought that he was dead. That didn’t bring her any comfort. Instead she had begun to think about life before him. When the Doors had appeared to her.

Her friends had been so jealous. But they couldn’t pass through. Adults couldn’t either. She remembered being so scared. There were stories of some never returning, being eaten by monsters or kidnapped by mercenaries on the other side. But her mother had dismissed those stories. Why would people make up such fibs, she would ask. And who exactly is bringing the stories back if they never return? With a Traveller’s survival pack her parents had purchased off the internet she had ventured alone through her first Door. Like many other people who went through the Doors, she didn’t tell much of what happened to her parents. It starts to fade for some after a while, especially the ones who went when very young. Too many memories for the brain to handle, doctors thought. And as you grow up again they get replaced with memories from your Stationary life.

There was a support group but Dee had stopped going. They spent so much time trying to keep hold of the memories. She hadn’t wanted to forget, precisely, but she didn’t fear it. Some memories she would be happy to  live without, just dumb luck which ones stayed.

She thought of the house she and Marl had lived in. She had chosen the wallpaper for the front room. And Marl had painted a mural on one wall. It had reminded her of the field near her parents house, when summer turned to autumn. The humidity changing to crisp decay and cool breezes. That had been the only time she had felt homesick. Marl had held her then, warm and safe. They continued to travel together, always returning to their house. Doors had stopped appearing. They got married.  She knew then why people made up awful stories about children who never returned. It hurt those left behind to think their children didn’t want to come back.

That was the real reason she couldn’t go to the support group anymore. Those Traveller’s had searched for a way home. Trying every door in every building in the hope one led back, sometimes years of searching. Dee had been happy in both worlds but deep inside her she had made the decision to stay. Marl had been her reason. He touched her as if she was actually alive. True she was only a child with her parents and first love is powerful, but the life they had built still felt like it was more real than the dream she had returned to.  She still wasn’t sure why. So while the others tried to remember their time away, feeling guilty for spending most of it trying to return, Dee felt guilty for wishing to stay and hoped to forget.

The front door slamming shut made her jump.

“Cosima?” she called.

“I’m going to the garden, Mum!” The back door slammed.

She thought of other children, her and Marl’s, slamming doors and running around the house. Marl would yell at them because he was more worried about the floor getting dirty than she was. It annoyed him when she laughed at their unruliness. But it reminded her of him when they first met. She had never told him but, after making the decision to remain, every door she opened she hesitated before going through. Even when Doors stopped, as she must have grown too old for it, still she would pause. That last day was sunny and hot. Her hair was wet and water droplets ran down the back of her shirt, Marl was yelling at the kids as they ran through the house still revved up from swimming outside. She was laughing, turning to look at him as she walked into the bedroom. The air felt cold and dry. Marls face changed. She looked around to find herself in her parents kitchen and realised she was back to the same height as when she left.  Looking up through the Doorway as Marl realised what was happening she reached her hand for him but the Door slammed closed.

Her mother heard her scream and found her crying on the floor. Her parents mistook her distress for some horrific event on the other side. They took her to the hospital to make sure she wasn’t injured. For years she saw psychologists and eventually ended up in group support. To her parents it had been merely days. It never occurred that the horror was seeing them.

Stationary life continued. Education, work, marriage and a child. Sickness and grief. This time she had something other than memories to live with. She heard the back door open.

“Mum?”

“In the kitchen.”

“Mum!”

A thrill of panic went through her. Clutching the knife she dashed into the hallway, Cosima stood at the other end and in between them were several Doorways that had not been there before. Dee held her hand up indicating for her daughter to wait. Trying hard not to let her hand tremble she opened the first Door. A damp heat rolled out and a cacophony of tropical birdsong. Eyeing her little girl who seemed on the verge of tears she shook her head. Closing the first Door, she continued down the hall, dripping knife in hand. A gust of frigid wind and the blast of salt water from the second had Dee slamming the Door before it was fully open. The third and last was nearest to Cosima.

“Third time lucky,” she reassured her. Cosima tried and failed to smile. Taking a deep breath Dee turned the handle. A warm golden glow emanated from it. Peeking inside Dee saw a study and heard the murmur of voices. As she opened the Door wider Cosima came closer, holding onto her mother’s leg like she had when she was younger. They waited. The voices stopped. Two men stepped into view. One was elderly with snowy, clean cut hair and a sprightly gait. The other was middle aged but slim. The twin looks of shock upon their faces were nothing she was sure to the look on hers.

“Ma?” the younger man said. Dee kept looking at the older man. Marls eyes were still that amazing pale blue but they had the same regret she saw in the mirror each day.

“Is that…you?” Looking at her eldest son she smiled.

“Yes, my darling. I’m so sorry I’ve been away for so long.”

“We’re…the same age?”

“I know.” She looked at Marl again. “This is Cosima. She’s my daughter.” He nodded in understanding and she wished she could explain further. His hand twitched and she saw a different wedding ring on his hand. She hiccoughed as laughter bubbled out along with her tears. Dee cleared her throat and knelt down to Cosima.

“This is Marl and his son. They are very, very special friends of mine. They’ll help you.”

“Ok.”

“And I want you to know something very important. They’ll remind you if you forget.” She looked at them and the men nodded. “If you need to stay, that’s alright, my darling. You be happy. Just be careful and always look before you step through. You understand?” Cosima nodded. Dee pulled her in and gave her a hard hug as she looked up at her other family. In that exchange of glances she realised how different their lives could have been. With a kiss to Cosima’s temple she smiled brightly at her daughter and let her step through. She watched as her children held hands. Cosima waved goodbye, a genuine smile creeping onto her face. Then she and Marl were left. He put his hand out but it was held back as if a pane of glass separated them. She placed her palm to his and imagined his warmth. He cried too. A creaking broke the silence and the Door began to close on her. Reluctantly she stepped away. She held his gaze as long as possible. Then the Door was gone.

Her ears rang in the silence. Then the sound of children playing filtered through the window. She looked down at the knife in her hand.

 

 

This story was part of the Pick Three Sentences challenge set by Chuck Wendig over at his blog terribleminds.com. Last week everyone had to write one sentence. This week we had to pick three that suggested a story to us. I chose the following:

1) He touched her as if she was actually alive. By Jezebel.

2) In that exchange of glances she realised how different their lives could have been. By Ita.

3) Closing the first door, she continued down the hall, dripping knife in hand. By Ila Turner.

The picture is used under Creative Commons, taken from pixabay.com

And I hope you enjoy the story.

The Priceless Cabin Beyond The Water (part 1)

The peeling paint on the wooden sign told them this was the registration office. Alessa’s father steered her inside, hand on her shoulder. There were other people waiting so they joined the end of the line. She stroked her baby brother Isaac’s head when he stirred in the papoose she wore. The floor was dusty and the windows dim. An old crone with stringy hair was behind the tall desk. Everyone talked in whispers except her. She loudly proclaimed when someone was registered, that the departure date she had given them was not for sale, for swapping and absolutely under no circumstances were they to miss it.
When Alessa and her father reached the desk the crone looked them over and sighed.
“All departees need to be present at registration.” Her father sagged slightly.
“We are.” He gave their names. She presented wooden tokens. Each had a date scratched into it and their names freshly added. They got the same speech about the dates.
“Excuse me?” Alessa stuttered. The crone had to lean forward to see her properly. “What if we die before our date?”
“Then you don’t have to worry about missing it do you? A blacksmith can make it into a metal token if you prefer.”
“For free?”
“No. Next!”
Thoroughly dismissed they made their way back out onto the dirt street. The buildings were nicer here, stone and clay. She had hoped the people would all be nicer too. At the outskirts of town an old man had spat on them and shambled back inside a lean to when asked for directions. They’d carried on in silence. The proprietor of the hostel they’d found had encouraged them to go straight to registration to get earlier dates. Aware the children were tired and hungry, Father had seen to them first.
“Back to the hostel?” She asked.
“No, there is daylight left. We can explore. And if we find anyone hiring a carpenter, all the better.”
“Because carpenters are always useful. That’s why you trained as one.”
“Correct, my darling.” He bestowed a rare smile on her and she felt like she was glowing. “Shall I take Isaac?”
“No, Father. If you need to speak business it will be better without the baby on your front.” He stopped and turned her to face him.
“Was that something your mother told you?” She shook her head. He continued to look at her.
“Yes.” He smiled again but it wasn’t a real one.
“You’re a good girl, Alessa.”
They carried on walking. Mist began to block out the bright sun. He took Alessa’s hand and began walking in the direction the it floated from. He was getting excited and picked up the pace as the mist turned to fog. She could hear voices and a metallic smell hit her nose.
They arrived at the back of some tall buildings. More people were gathering so her Father hoisted her onto his shoulders. Isaac gurgled but other than that was still. She was thankful or Father would have to bring them down again. She could now see a pier jutting out over grey choppy water, a small boat docked at the far end. A woman was being helped in by a broad shouldered man. A cheer went up from the audience.
“It’s a departure!” She yelled.
“I see it, my love!” She felt Father chuckle and he pushed into the throng. A group at the base of the pier were chanting led by a man in robes.
“…be at peace and see her family across the water.
The Gods carry her from toil, her struggle is over.”
A rope barrier prevented the crowd going further. As they got closer and the first roar of the crowd settled, Alessa could hear crying and screaming. A boy was holding the side of the boat. The woman removed his hands as two men picked the child up and held him out of reach. He clawed at the air, trying to reach for the small vessel as it moved away from the dock. The woman blew a final kiss and turned away, facing into the thick fog.
“Look Alessa, it moves without a sail. Or oars.” Her Father’s whisper seemed loud in the sudden quiet. The chanting had stopped. Even the child was silent. Alessa felt her Father’s grip on her legs making them numb. The woman disappeared into the fog. Quicker than it had arrived the fog rolled back into the distance, leaving the water calm and no sign of the boat. A collective sigh rippled through the crowd followed by applause.
As the audience dispersed her Father kept moving forward. When they were no longer surrounded by people he swung her down. She stamped her feet as pins and needles racked her legs. The two men from the dock were unhooking the rope.
“Afternoon,” her Father greeted. They nodded but didn’t speak.
“While waiting I saw there was some wear on the pier. I’d happily fix it for a fair price or is there a master carpenter I could be recommended to?” The men looked at each other and smiled.
“For every citizen who takes the journey…” one said reverently.
“A priceless gift.” The other said with a grin on his face. He clapped her Father on the shoulder.
“The local carpenter departed three days ago. The next day we saw the damage. You have come at a fortuitous moment.” They began to guide him down the pier. He glanced at Alessa who indicated she would stay. With a real smile he carried on. They passed the boy, his feet now dangling over the edge as he stared across the water. Keeping one hand on Isaac she lowered herself next to him. His eyes were red and the streaks down his face were drying.
“They say the land across the water only has one building. A beautiful cabin. But inside is big enough to house everyone and we will all live together with the Gods. But they build it a day at a time which is why only one person can go. Is that true?”
“How should I know?”
“Well, I’m new. We arrived today. You must have lived here a lot longer if your mother has departed. That was your Mother? I thought maybe you’d know.”
He sat up straighter, staring at her and she felt so sad. “The dates they gave to my family are all close together. You’ll be with her soon.” She patted his hand. He got up. He was very tall, probably older than her.
“My mother never registered me. I don’t have a departure date.”

To be continued…

This story is for Toni. She chose the title out of a list I created using the random title generator at http://www.mcoorlim.com/random I first became familiar with this site through Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge at terribleminds.com and led to my first story on here, ‘Two Skulls’. Header image used under Creative Commons, taken from pixabay.com.

I hope you enjoy this story and I’ll post the next part soon.

The End of the Party

The call flashes on the screen, the sound covered by people yelling over loud music. The room is pressed with excited sweaty bodies dancing and laughing, table hopping to talk to everyone. Awards litter the centre pieces or are held aloft. Passed around supportive friends and colleagues. Someone yells a greeting as you step out into the bright hallway. The closed door muffles the noise enough to answer. But your ears are still ringing and you ask them to repeat themselves. A stranger tells you a story. They give you some contact details before signing off. Nobody stops you as you find your purse. A clap on the shoulder and you turn. You force a tight smile onto your face. In the lift the mirrored walls make you look pale.

Your bag is packed and a taxi called. You changed and scrubbed off your make-up, brushed out the elaborate hairstyle and tied it up. The letter you’ve written for your boss is sealed in an envelope. You leave it at the desk on your way out to be delivered later. You see two friends but hold back the impulse to call out when they don’t notice you.

It’s busy for such an early morning flight. An attendant had to walk you onto the plane and guide you to your seat. They try to be thoughtful and attentive but there are other passengers making demands. A message is waiting when you turn on your phone. There’s no need to hurry now so instead you ask the taxi to take you home. As you go inside and turn on a light in the empty house you breath in deeply. It’s familiar and comforting. You know it will never smell like this again.

Featured image from pixabay.com and used under creative Commons.