The Frog

For pride month, River challenged me to re-write a fairy tale to incorporate LGBTQ et al. themes. This story is the result.  

“What on earth is that racket?” said Queen Marianna, with equal parts scorn and brown gravy dripping from her mouth.  As a globule of the latter fell onto her plate, she self-consciously dabbed at her face with a napkin. 

Voices were talking over one another in the hallway, the sound growing gradually louder. 

“I don’t know,” King Grisham said, frowning, “but this is our dinner-time, and they can wait until we’re through.  Jessop?” This last word he addressed to the servant who stood at the ready.  

“Yes, sire.” 

“Go see what all that fuss is about.  And Luna, finish your plate, so you can get started on the dishes.” 

Princess Luna sighed mightily, her forearms on the table, head hunched over the last few bites of her food.  

“I don’t WANT to do the dishes, father.  Why don’t we have a maid to do them instead?  We used to have a maid…” 

The king and queen exchanged a meaningful look. 

“Luna, dear, we talked about this,” said the queen.  “We are tightening our belts this season, and everyone has to pitch in.”

“And you promised you would do the dishes tonight.” the king said, with finality.  

With a mighty crash, the wooden doors flung open, and Jessop returned, panting. 

“Sire, it’s a meteor shower!  The sky is full of shooting stars!”

Luna jumped up from her chair. “Father! Can I go see it?!”

The king furrowed his brow and thought for a moment. 

“You need to do the dishes first. When you’re through, then you can go outside and watch.”

“But, sire, we don’t know how long-“ Jessop started. 

A dangerous, direct look from the king stopped him cold.

“A promise made is a promise kept, Luna. Some falling space rocks don’t change that,” said the king. 

“It’s just not….it’s not fair!” said Luna, stomping off to the kitchen.  She slammed the door behind her as she left, causing both king and queen to stiffen and wince. 

“You were a little harsh, dear,” said Marianna.

“Perhaps,” said King Grisham, “but she needs to learn responsibility.  She only got out of her chores yesterday by promising to do them today.  We can’t let her become spoiled.” 

“But she’s only a child,” Marianna said, gently. 

The king sighed.  “If only that were so!  She’s fifteen. Far too old for these make believe games.  Most young women her age are learning to tend to the household, choosing dresses, learning to dance.  I worry about Luna.” 

“She’s just a bit of a tomboy.  There’s no harm in that.” 

King Grisham chuckled.  “A tomboy? Yesterday, she was pretending to be a knight saving a maiden in distress.  I think she’s just confused.” 

“She’ll grow out of it,” said the queen.  “I certainly did.” She gave the king a flirtatious smile.  

“You did all right for yourself, I suppose,” the king said.  

“Well, right now, I am going to see about this meteor shower.  Would you like to join me?” 

“I have some things to attend to, my dearest,” said King Grisham.  “Enjoy the show.”

Luna sat astride an impossibly high tree branch, her legs dangling, her concentration focused on a small patch of dirt just below her.  She wore simple shorts; her legs and feet were bare. Muttering aloud, she slowly cocked her hand behind her head, and then swung it forward, propelling a smooth rock at high velocity.  It impacted the dirt precisely on target, a plume of dusty fallout rising.  

“Right between the eyes!  The ogre staggers backwards.  His eyes get wide. And then…he falls!” 

She looked around.  Nobody was in sight.  To her left, she saw the path back towards the castle, the ground knotted with bark-covered tree roots.  To her right, the river shallows, which began just a few feet from the base of the tree. The water was quiet; the only sound was the hum of insects, and the few distant voices of those still outside after the now-abated meteor shower.  

“All at once, a huge roar, and then Sir Luna sees…the dragon!”  She bared her teeth, pushing air and voice through them to simulate the malevolent growl of the great beast.  

Luna dropped her voice to a deep tenor.  “You’ll never save the maiden! Guards!” 

She reached into her pouch and drew two more stones, which she swiftly threw, one to each side of the original impact.  

“What is this magic?  The spears bounce right off!” 

Deep tenor again.  “Hahaha, you fool! I am protected with a deep magic.  You cannot defeat me or my servants. Surrender, and I will give you a swift death.” 

“Never!”  Luna reached back into the pouch and drew a golden orb.  “Behold! I have my own, more powerful magic!”  

She thrust the orb forward and back, forward and back, aiming each thrust in the direction of her failed missiles.  

“Pachoo!  The dark guards are fallen!  And you’re next.”  

She raised the orb over her head, imagining the terrified dragon’s look.  

“Wait, Sir Luna, don’t hurt me!  I’ll return the maiden to safety.” 

“And what of your hoard?  Will you give back everything you stole from the village?” 

She snarled her voice.  “Never! You will never take my gold!” 

“You asked for it.”  She pulled the orb back dramatically.  As she did, a moth alit onto her elbow, giving Luna such a fright that she spasmed slightly, the orb slipping from her grasp.  With horror, she watched as it fell, leaves exploding off of their branches as it passed. It hit a low-hanging branch, and Luna watched helplessly as it rolled down the right side of the tree, into the river.  

For a moment, she sat in stunned silence, and then bounded down the tree, letting the twigs and bark abrade her legs and face.  When she reached the ground, she ran to the water’s edge, and peered down into the darkness, seeing nothing.  

“Oh…..shit!” she exclaimed, emphasizing each harsh letter of the curse.  

“What did you lose?” said a small, tinny voice.  Luna looked around quickly, but saw no one.  

“Hello?” she said.  

“I said, what did you lose?” 

“Where are you?  Come where I can see you!” 

“Don’t be frightened.”  The voice was very close now.  Luna felt fear rising from her lower back, through her chest, and coming to rest in her collarbone.  “Turn around. I’m sitting on the lowest branch.”

Luna turned, but nobody was sitting on the bough.  She saw only twisted bark, a line of tree ants, and a small frog, that seemed to be looking directly at her. 

“Don’t be frightened,” the frog said.  

Luna gasped, taking a big step back and nearly falling into the water. She regained her footing, mouth agape. 

“How are you- are you talking?!” 

“I am,” said the frog. 

“But that’s impossible!” 

The frog took a small hop forward on the branch, and Luna flinched.  The frog’s voice was enthusiastic. “Dragons are impossible. Magical stones that can slay demons are impossible.  Now what are talking frogs, next to those things?” 

Luna shook her head rapidly from side to side, trying to clear her head.  “You…were listening to me?” 

The frog nodded.  “The whole time.” 

“I can’t believe this!  First, I miss the meteor shower.  Then, I lose my golden orb. Now, a…FROG… is talking to me, and snooping on me when I think I’m alone.  This is too much.”  

She dropped to the ground and started to cry. 

The frog hopped off the branch and came down next to her.  “Maybe I can help you. What if I go and get your orb back?” 

Luna sniffed loudly.  “You can’t. It fell in the river.” 

“Ah, but I can.  You said it’s gold, right?” 

Luna nodded. 

“If it’s gold, then it sank right to the bottom.  It’s not too deep here. I could get it for you.” 

Through teary eyes, Luna looked at the frog.  “You’d do that for me?” 

The corner of the frog’s mouth turned up.  “For a price.” 

“I don’t have any money,” said Luna. 

“I don’t want money.  I want you to break my curse.” 



“What’s the curse?”  

“Well,” the frog pressed his mouth together broadly.  “I can’t tell you that. It’s part of the curse.” 

The princess sat up, wrapping her hands around her knees.  “Well, then, how am I supposed to break it?” 

The frog audibly sighed.  “I can’t tell you that either.  But if you let me stay with you, just for a little while, I think you’ll figure it out.” 

Luna scrunched her forehead and thought for a moment.  “If I say yes, you’ll get me back my golden orb?” 

“I will!” said the Frog. 

“Okay, then.” 

“You promise?” 

“I promise,” said Luna. 

At once, the frog hopped to the water’s edge and dived in, disappearing under the black water.  Luna sat, watching for any sign of its return.  

She waited. 

And waited. 

And waited some more.  At last, despondent that the talking frog would never return, she stood up, brushed the leaves and dirt off her clothing, and started back for the castle.  

She had gone just a few steps when she heard a splash, followed by a very faint, high-pitched panting.  

“You found it!” said Luna, rushing towards the golden ball.  She grabbed the orb, kissed it, and started back for the castle. 

“Hey, wait!” the frog gasped.  “You…you promised to help!” 

But Luna was already gone, running and skipping her way back home.  

It was the galloping of leather-shoed feet on the stone floor, rather than the thunderous banging of the doors that immediately followed it, that woke King Grisham.  

“Sire!  Sire! You must come!  The guards, sire! They have caught something fantastical.  Sire, a talking frog!” the guard spoke so quickly and nervously he stammered. 

“Wait, slow down.  A talking frog?” the King said, drawing out the last word as though it was foreign and unwelcome.  

The guard nodded enthusiastically.  “Yes, sire!” 

“And it has been captured?” 

“Yes, sire.” 

King Grisham cocked his head to the side slowly.  “In that case, why did you wake me up at this unspeakable pre-dawn hour?” 

The guard’s enthusiasm transformed, first into fright, and then into defiance. 

“Sire, there’s more.  The frog…it’s talking like a person, like it knows things, sire.  It says it knows your daughter.” 

“My daughter?” said the King.  “What did it say about my daughter?” 

“Sire, I’d sooner not say, sire.  I think it’s better you hear it from him.  Sire.”

King Grisham elevated his chin.  “Thank you for letting me know your preference.  Now, tell me precisely what the frog said about Princess Luna.” 

The guard looked confused, and then at his feet.  “It said she made a promise, sire, and that she’s broken it and run away.” 

The King considered a moment, rolling his bottom lip between his teeth.  “Okay. Have her woken and brought down. Have the frog waiting for us in the throne room.  I will be down presently.” 

As the door closed behind the departing guard, King Grisham turned around to see his wife, her body wrapped up in a large, fluffy robe, standing attentively by the bed.  

“It’s a good thing Luna wasn’t here to hear you call it the throne room,” said Queen Marianna.  “You just know she would make some comment about there being no throne, the servant would giggle, and you would be forced to discipline the servant for the insult.” 

“They’re guards, not servants,” said King Grisham, rubbing his temples.  “We don’t have servants for the same reason we sold the throne.”  

“Money, yes, always money.  I thought you were going to ask the wealthier lords for a more substantial…tribute.” 

“I have,” said the King.  “Duke Leonid has been begging off a meeting for weeks.  I think he knows the shape of the conversation. Duke Broadstone and Lady Elena plead poverty, and Sir Roget gave something, but not enough to make a real difference.” 

“I’m sure something will come through.  It always has before,” said the Queen, smiling brightly. 

“I do hope you’re right,” said the King, pulling on the same shirt he had worn the day before.  “I guess I had better go see to this talking frog. I’ll be up shortly, dear.” 

“Are you kidding?  A talking frog? I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” said the Queen.  

King Grisham considered protesting, then thought better of it.  Now dressed, he marched out of the bedroom and towards the throne room, Queen Marianne following close behind.  

If the King was expecting to see just the frog, his guards, and his daughter, he was mistaken.  A talking frog created a stir, and not one easily contained. It was just as well the throne had been sold: it would not fit in the room this evening, so full it was of the curious residents, most dressed in their sleepwear.  

“Where is this frog?” said the King. 

The crowd parted, and a guard gestured towards a small bird cage. 

“‘E stopped talking, sire.  Before, ‘e was, but then it got to be crowded and ‘e just stopped.  I tried shaking the cage and poking at ‘im, but ‘e’s not so much as made a ribbit, sire.” 

The King grimmaced at the reference to shaking and poking, but nodded as he gestured the guard away with a wave of his hand.  

The crowd was silent, kept back a small distance by the guards.  King Grisham bent down and peered into the cage. 

“So, you can talk, then?” 

The frog met his eyes intelligently, and moved its head  slowly up and down. 

The king returned the slow nod.  “Show me,” he said, softly. 

“Yes, your majesty,” the frog articulated precisely.

An involuntary shudder passed over the king.  He stood to his full height, and turned around. 

“Guards, send these people home.  This is under control, and we will still be here to discuss tomorrow.”  

The chamber resonated with the sounds of footfalls, muttering, and the clanking of metal on stone as the crowd migrated towards the exit, and then dissipated.  At last, the large wooden doors thudded shut, leaving in the throne room only the King, the Queen, and the caged frog. 

“Tell me what has happened,” the King said to the frog.  “Why can you speak, and what is this business with my daughter?”

The frog hopped forward and rose on its hind legs, resting its front legs on the bars of the bird cage, so as to address the king bipedally.  

“Your majesty,” it said, its voice proper, “I am afflicted by a curse.  I met the princess by the river, and she promised to help me break the curse if I did her a service.  I did the service, but then she ran away into the castle.”

The king nodded.  “What is the curse, then, and what do you need in order to break it?” 

“I can’t say, your majesty.  That’s a part of it, I’m afraid.”

“Hmm…” said the King.  “Did you used to be human, then?” 

The frog looked pained.  “I cannot speak about the nature of the curse, your majesty.” 

Queen Marianna came up from behind.  “Did you used to be unable to speak?” she said. 

“No, I have always been able to speak.” 

“A human, then,” she said to the King, and stepped back, as though satisfied.  

At that moment, the door pushed open and Luna entered, looking sleepy but trepidatious.  

“Luna, do you know this frog?” said the King. 

She started to shake her head in denial, but caught a stern look from her mother.  “Yes, I mean, I ran into him last night.” 

“It says that you promised to help, and then ran away.” 

“That’s not true!” Luna yelled.  “I never made a promise.” 

“It says that he did a favor for you, and you promised to help in exchange.  Did that happen?” said the King.  

“No!  We didn’t have a conversation.  I was down by the water, minding my own business, and this frog started talking to me.  I thought it was crazy, and I ran away.” 

“That’s a lie!” said the frog.  

Queen Marianne gasped.  The King turned to the frog, his face hardened. 

“You would accuse the princess of lying?” he said.  “You had better be able to back that claim up, or you will be punished for saying it.” 

“She had a golden ball, that she was playing with in a tree,” said the frog.  “She dropped it into the water, and I dove down to get it. That’s the only reason she agreed to help me.” 

Queen Marianne turned to her daughter.  “How do you explain that?” she said. 

“It’s not true,” said Luna.  “I didn’t even have my gold orb with me. It was in my room.” 

“In that case, how would the frog know you have one?” said King Grisham. 

“I, uh-” Princess Luna looked from the King to the Queen to the frog.  

“Did you lie?” said the king. 

“Yes,” Luna whispered, looking at the floor.  

“Return to your room and go to sleep.  We will discuss this in the morning.” 

Luna scurried out of the room. 

“As for you,” the King said to the frog, “I apologize for my daughter’s conduct.  We will give you a room here, of course, and a guard to keep the curious at bay.”

“May I be let out of the cage, your majesty?” said the frog. 

“Of course,” said the King.  “But please, stay with us. I will endeavor to help my daughter keep her promise to you.”

The frog bowed.  “Thank you, your majesty.” 

“What sort of curse turns one into a frog?” the King said.  It was mid-morning, and he and Marianna had finally given up on going back to sleep.  They were making a slow rise of things, gradually assuming their daytime dress in between yawns and moments of repose.  

“Two kinds, that I know of,” said the Queen.  “It could be witchcraft, it could be a hex. I don’t think a haunting, that wouldn’t persist within our castle.” 

“Remind me the difference?” 

“Witchcraft is done on purpose, by a witch.  A hex is tied to an object or a place. If our guest encountered somewhere or something it was not supposed to encounter, it could have been cursed that way.” 

“It knows it can’t speak of it: that probably means a witch, since it must have been told,” said the King. 

“Not necessarily,” the Queen said.  “It may have figured it out when it tried to talk about it, and found that it could not.” 

The king nodded.  “I suppose that’s true.  How many witches do we have in our lands?” 

“Capable of this type of curse?  Oh, five maybe? But who is to say it happened near here?  It could have been anyone.” 

“Still, it is worth the inquiry.  Can you arrange it?” 

“Of course,” said Queen Marianne.  “There is one more thing to consider,” she added.   


“A talking frog is quite a rare thing,” said the Queen.  “Sometimes, rare things can be sold for quite…high returns.” 

“Are you suggesting selling the frog?” said King Grisham. 

“Oh, not at all,” she said, “what you do with the frog is your affair.  I just thought it prudent to consider that, among your options, you could conceivably find a person willing to take the frog off of your hands for a very considerable amount of money.  Enough, perhaps, to keep us afloat for many months to come.” 

“Our situation is not as desperate as all that,” said the King. 

“It is,” Queen Marianna said.  “Just today, the guards gave their notice.  If they are not paid within a fortnight, they shall leave.  The cook will be right behind them. We must consider all our options”  

The king was silent a long moment.  “It won’t do to compromise our values,” he said.  “Luna promised the frog assistance. We promised it hospitality.  To turn around and sell it, and to one likely to exploit it for its farcical value, is wrong.” 

“Your values may lead to our household’s collapse,” said Marianna, urgently.  

The King had no response, and was gladdened when a sharp knock at the door interrupted the conversation.  It was Jessop. 

“Sire,” said Jessop, “Duke Leonid has come. He sends his apologies for his delayed message, and asks if you have time to see him now.” 

King Grisham smiled and turned to his wife.  “See? Things will turn around: We already feel them turning.”  He turned back to Jessop. “Tell him we shall be down shortly, and see him into the den.” 

Jessop nodded and set off.  

“I do hope my suggestion did not give offense,” said Queen Marianna.  

“We shall not speak of it again.  Now, we must go and see to our financial health!” said the King. 

Duke Leonid was still standing when the King entered his den, and the monarch approached him warmly.  

“Duke!  You’ve come at last,” said the King. 

“Yes, about that, I am so sorry for the delay.  I meant to respond, but time got away from me, and…well, I’m sorry, sire.” 

King Grisham smiled indulgently.  “We are sure you came as soon as you could, Duke.”

“The truth, your majesty,” said the Duke, shifting his weight uneasily, “is that I have been distracted this past week.  My son is missing.”

“Was he kidnapped?” the king said, his eyes large. 

“I…don’t think so.  The truth is, sire, he…may have run away.” 

“Tell us what happened.  Perhaps we can help.” 

“Well sire,” said the duke, “Alex is a…special boy.  Always very shy, and lately, very troubled. I fear I left him far too much in the care of his mother, as a young child.  Lately, he has been despondent, and I learned he had been seeking out the services of a witch.” 

King Grisham started.  “A witch? What could a son of yours, a son who wants for nothing, need of a witch?” 

The duke could not maintain eye contact as he responded.  “I think he had some…rather unusual ideas. About magic, naturally, and special powers.  I forbade him from going to the witch, of course, but he sneaked out despite my instructions, and has been gone ever since.” 

“Could he have come to some harm from the witch?”   

“Anything is possible, your majesty,” said the duke.  “The truth is, I have come to ask your assistance.” 

“Well, the witches in this region will receive no safe haven from us,” said the king.  “Tell me where we can find this witch, and we will take care of the problem.” 

“I fear it has gone beyond that, sire,” the duke said.  “I have had her hut watched for several days, and there is no sign of Alex.  I fear he may have found what he was looking for, and absconded.” 

“What type of magic was he seeking?” the king said. 

“Transformation, your majesty,” said the duke, looking once more around the room, at the ceiling, the floor, in the direction of everything but the king.  

“What type of transformation?” 

“I’m not sure, your highness.  He just…wanted a change, really.  Said he was unhappy in his own skin, or something like that.” 

The king furrowed his brow.  “We wonder if our new guest might have some information that could help you.” 

“New guest?”

“Yes,” said the king.  “Surely you’ve heard about our talking frog.  It’s the talk of the castle.” 

“I did hear some strange rumors on my way to see you, sire, but a talking frog?  I must confess, that’s a new one to me.” 

The king stroked his beard slowly.  “Do you suppose there is any chance the frog is your son?”

“My son?  A frog?”

“You said he was looking for transformation magic.  Perhaps something went awry.” 

The duke considered this a moment.  “I suppose it could be so. Have you spoken to this frog?  What does it say happened?” 

“It can’t precisely say,” said the king, “It claims that the curse prevents it from explaining.” 

“May I see this frog, sire?” the duke said. 

“It’s dining with the princess this morning.  Perhaps we could find a place to observe it unnoticed.  That might give us a clue as to its origins.” 

“Thank you, your majesty,” said the duke, bowing low. 

Luna sat at a small table in her room, poking her spoon at a soft boiled egg in front of her, tapping just hard enough to fleck off the small pieces of shell, which were gathering on the table. 

“I don’t know how you expect me to help you, when you can’t even tell me what’s wrong,” she said. 

Across from her, sitting on the edge of the table, was the frog.  

“Believe me, princess, if I could tell you, I would.”

Luna clapped her spoon onto the table loudly.  “It’s not fair! You got me in trouble, and now I have to help you, and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be doing!  If my father wasn’t so stubborn, he’d just thank you for getting back my ball and send you on your way.” 

“To live out my days with the curse, then?” said the frog, its voice expressionless. 

“Well, no, I mean, maybe to find someone who knows how to help you.  Another witch, maybe?” 

“You are the only one in these lands who can cure me, princess.” 

“But I don’t know HOW!” said Luna, throwing her spoon in anger.  It careened off the table just inches from the frog, hit the wall behind it, and clattered to the floor.  The frog started. “…I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s my father. He’s…he just thinks he knows what’s best for me.  This whole thing with promises, and honor, and duty. It’s not easy having a king as your father.” 

The frog took a deep breath, the panic fading from its eyes.  “No, I suppose it wouldn’t be. My father is also a…strong-willed man.”

“Not like mine!” said Luna.  “He’s obsessed with acting properly and setting a good example.  He doesn’t want me climbing trees or playing outside. He says I should wear dresses and greet people politely, and speak softly.  And he’s always giving me lectures about when I’m married and when I’m a queen or a lady.”

“My father was the same way,” said the frog, “always wanting me to be more manly, more grown up.” 

“You were a man, once, then?” Luna said. 

“I…” the frog tried to speak, but its small green lips only quavered.  “I suppose I can’t say.” 

“You can talk around it, though!” said Luna, her voice rising.  “You may not be able to tell me about the curse, but if you tell me about yourself, maybe I can figure it out!” 

“We can try that, I guess,” said the frog.  

“So, your father, he wanted you to be more grown up, right?” 

“Yes.  He’s an important man, and I’m supposed to take his place one day.  So he has all these ideas of how I need to act and who I need to be, and it’s just…overwhelming.” 

“It sounds like he and my father would get along,” said Luna.  “My father always makes me change clothes and stand around being quiet while the adults talk.  He says I’m supposed to be seen and not heard. And he keeps telling me to stop acting like a boy.” 

“And what do you do?” said the frog. 

“I usually do what I want,” said Luna.  “I’m in trouble pretty much all the time.  Because I don’t want to be some lord’s wife. I don’t even like boys.   I want to be an adventurer! Or a knight! I want to save maidens in distress and fight off monsters!  I want to be a hero!” 

“Maybe we can trade,” said the frog.  “My father would love it if I tried to act like a knight.  He would say that knighthood is a manly profession. But I don’t like those things.  So I don’t do them.” 

Luna narrowed her eyes.  “Did your father put the curse on you?”

“No!” said the frog, quickly, its lips slamming shut the instant the syllable was uttered.  

“Then who did?” Luna insisted. 

The frog opened its mouth to speak, but no sound came forth.  It closed its mouth again, and shook its head sadly. 

“…worth a try,” said Luna. 

They sat in silence for a long minute, Luna poking a finger at her egg, and the frog pursing its small lips.  

With a silent gesture of his hand, King Grisham led the duke away from their place of concealment.  They moved slowly and quietly until they emerged into a vestibule separated by several walls from the princess’ chamber.  

“That was hard to hear,” said Duke Leonid.  “That is most certainly Alex. I am ashamed to say I recognize those sentiments, very well.”

“You hear how my daughter speaks of me,” said the king.  “It won’t do to have her spreading such stories. She is willful, incorrigible, and has no care in the world for her duties as a member of our royal family.” 

“My son appears unable to tell us the nature of the curse,” said the duke.  “Your majesty, we must confront the witch. She is the only one who can put an end to this.” 

The king stroked his chin and took two deep, slow breaths.  “I have no love for the witches of this kingdom, as you well know, Leonid.  But before we breach the peace, perhaps we should give this time to play out.”

The duke frowned mightily.  “Sire, every moment my son spends in that disgusting form, he risks being killed, injured, or seized by some unscrupulous rogue.  We cannot risk this continuing even a single day.” 

King Grisham walked across the vestibule and sat, gesturing for the duke to follow him.  

“Leonid, we must be very candid with you.  We may be making some changes to this household in the coming weeks.  Our financial situation is…regrettable. This may be the last fortnight in which we have the service of our full complement of guards.  We do not want to start a fight with a witch that we cannot finish.”  

The duke gave a half smile.  “So that’s why you have been seeking a meeting, sire.”

“You are the richest landowner in the lands, Leonid.  And you have always been loyal. Of course I would come to you for assistance.”

“What if I offer to pay for the guards, for as long as you need them to confront and defeat this witch?” said the duke. 

Grisham shook his head.  “Then we would be in the same situation we were in before your son was cursed.  The kingdom would be in financial distress. Remember, we intended to speak with you about this before the nasty business with your son.” 

The two men sat frowning, Leonid shifting uncomfortably in his seat.  Then, a small smile came over his face, which grew into mirth, and erupted into a full grin.  

“I  have an idea, your majesty, that might solve several problems at once, for both of us.” 

“I’m listening,” said the king. 

“Open!  In the name of his majesty!” yelled the guard, pounding on the wooden door of the hut.  

Behind him, King Grisham and Duke Leonid stood on either side of Luna, who held in her arms a small wicker basket bearing the frog.  Flanking them, a dozen guards, in full martial gear.  

“Go away!” came a sharp voice from within.  

“You will open this door, or we shall break it down!” said the guard. 

A cackling laughter.  “Feel free to try. My protective spells on this hut will never yield to your brutishness.” 

The guard turned his head and looked at the king, shrugging. 

“This is the king.  You will open this door at once,” said Grisham. 

“Go away!” 

“Those are some beautiful herbs you have in the garden,” said Luna.  The king, duke, and guards all turned their heads towards her. “If you don’t open, I suppose we will just have to try to find our own remedy.  Perhaps uprooting these herbs and taking them back to the castle would be a good start.” 

“Not my herbs!” said the witch.  There was a thumping and clanging and creaking from behind the door, which then swung open.  The witch emerged. She was dressed in an elegant gray dress that covered her from neck to heel.  Her hair was wild, her face a mix of anger and fear.  

“What is your name?” said the king. 

“Esmerelda.  Why have you disturbed me?  If this is about the meteor shower…that was just a spell gone wrong.  It won’t happen again.” 

“Why have you cursed my son?” said Duke Leonid.  

The witch looked confused, her eyes darting from the duke to the king, to the guards, and then to Luna.  Finally, she spied the basket, and began to laugh. 

“You mean Alex?  I didn’t curse Alex, I tried to help!   And some thanks I get!” 

“If this is not a curse, why can’t Alex speak of it?” said the king. 

The witch frowned, sending a mole on her cheek several inches towards her pointy chin.  “I agreed to help, but we both knew you-” she pointed at the duke “-would not approve. So I made Alex promise not to tell a soul about the spell.  And a promise made to a witch is binding on one’s lips.” 

“What was the spell?” the duke demanded. 

“To transform.  Alex wanted to transform into a new body,” said Esmerelda. 

“Into a frog?” said Luna.  “Why would anyone want to be turned into a frog?” 

“Well…it wasn’t into a frog, precisely.  It was more a general transformation, and I don’t believe either of us was expecting it to turn out quite that way.” 

“Well, change him back!” said the duke.  

“It’s not quite that simple,” said the witch.  “Restorative spells only work under certain, er, conditions, and when Alex first became a frog I was really in no position to- hey!” she looked at Luna.  “You wouldn’t happen to be the princess, would you?”

“Yes,” said the king.  “This is my daughter.” 

“Oh, in that case, it’s simple.  You must kiss the frog. That will restore Alex’ true form, and wipe away the transformation.” 

Luna’s eyes grew wide.  “I…I can’t.” 

“Why not?” said the king. 

“Because of a promise.  I promised myself that I would never kiss a boy, no matter how much you wanted me to.  Because I’m not going to marry some duke or lord, father. I’ve told you a hundred times.” 

The others just stared at Luna, stunned. 

“In any case,” she continued, “you’ve always told me I can’t break a promise, and I promised that I wouldn’t do it.” 

“But Alex isn’t a boy; he’s a frog,” the duke pointed out. 

“He’s really a boy, though,” said the king, sighing.  “Luna is right; a promise made must be a promise kept.” 

“You promised to help me!” said the duke.  “And I promised you that Alex would marry Luna.  What about your promise to me?” 

“You did WHAT?!” yelled Luna.  

The king pursed his lips.  “It’s for the best, Luna. You need a man to help settle you down.  And Alex needs a wife. And our kingdom needs the resources of the dowry Duke Leonid has promised to provide.  This is your duty, Luna.” 

“No.  No way!” said Luna.  “I already promised I wouldn’t kiss a boy.  And I’m definitely not going to marry one.” 

“You’re being childish,” said the king.  

“It appears we are at a stalemate,” said the duke. 

“Can I say something?” said a tiny voice from within the basket.  It was the frog. “Esmerelda, will you release me from my promise not to talk about the help you gave me?” 

The witch looked puzzled.  “Yes, I release you.” 

The frog hopped onto Luna’s shoulder and leaned in towards her face.  

“No!  I’m not going to kiss you, no matter what you say.” 

“Shh,” said the frog, softly.  “I’m just going to whisper something in your ear.” 

For the better part of two minutes, the frog spoke directly into Luna’s ear.  Her face turned inquisitive, then disbelieving. She whispered a few words back, and the frog resumed.  Then, a smile broke out over Luna’s face. 

“Okay!”  she said, grinning wide.  She cupped both her hands, and the frog hopped into them.  Lifting them to her face, she put a great kiss upon its face.  

Smoke began to rise around the frog, and winds from some unseen source caused the smoke to swirl.  Luna stepped back; the frog was gone, enveloped in the dark gray vapors. After several seconds, the smoke cleared, revealing Alex.  

Her dark hair shone like flax, hanging below her shoulders.  A blue summer dress hung from her shoulders, lacing about her torso and hanging loose just above the knees.  

“What new mischief is this?” the duke demanded, addressing the witch.  “You said this would restore Alex, not turn him into some…girl!” 

The witch’s mouth was open, and her eyes did not move from regarding Alex.  Then, slowly, she closed her mouth and began to chuckle, starting with a few shakes and escalating in pitch and frequency until it became a proper, witchly cackle.  

“So THAT was our mistake, Alex,” said the witch.  “We never should have used a transformation spell.  There was probably a frog going about its business in my garden nearby.  Poor creature, at least it will have a tale to tell the other frogs in the pond.”  She resumed laughing. 

“What is the meaning of this?” said the king.  “What are you talking about?” 

The witch, now doubled over, took several seconds to regain enough composure to respond. 

“We should have used a restorative spell to start with!  Alex wasn’t looking to be transformed: she was looking to be restored to her true form!” 

“What do you mean ‘she?’” said the duke.  “This is my son we’re talking about!” 

“I was never your son, father,” said Alex, her voice soft and sweet.  “I’ve always been this person…I just didn’t look like it.”

“Well, the marriage is certainly off,” said the king.  

“No, father, you promised,” said Luna, without taking her eyes off Alex.   

“But…you must marry a man, Luna.  A woman will never do.” 

“I don’t want to marry a man.”

“Well, I forbid it.” 

“You can’t, father: you made a promise to the duke.”  

The king looked to Duke Leonid for assistance, but the duke, still transfixed on Alex, was in no position to give it.  Nobody spoke for several seconds. 

“Luna, you did say you always wanted to rescue a maiden in distress, didn’t you?” said Alex. 

Luna laughed in response. 

“May I have another kiss, then?  Who knows what that will do.” 

Before the sentence was even complete, Luna closed the small distance between them and kissed Alex passionately, then stepped back.  

“It didn’t do anything,” said Luna. 

“It made me happy, though,” said Alex, and they both laughed.  

“Alex, is this…really who you are?” said the duke, quietly.  

“Yes, father, it’s what I’ve been trying to tell you for a long time.  I just didn’t have the words, I guess.” 

The duke stood motionless for the better part of a minute, then inhaled sharply and squared his shoulders. 

“In that case, you have my blessing.  I promised the king your hand, and a promise made is a promise kept.” 

“This is madness,” said King Grisham.  “What will your mother say, Luna?” 

“She will say that you are the king, and her duty is to obey your wishes,” said Luna.  

The king and the duke regarded their respective daughters, who were now holding hands and smiling at each other wordlessly.  The fathers turned to look at one another. The king looked uncertain. The duke shrugged at him. The king shrugged back, and they both broke into small smiles. 

“So be it,” said the king.  “We don’t understand this magic, but we understand duty, and we understand keeping one’s promises.  And a promise made is a promise kept.”  

The king and duke nodded at each other; Luna and Alex embraced; the witch smiled and quietly retreated into her hut; the guards smiled at one another, anxious to end their duties and talk about the strange magic they had just witnessed.  

We won’t here tell of the challenges and joys and sorrows that ensued for Luna, for Alex, or for the king.  We won’t describe the hundreds and thousands of conversations and debates and discussions that followed in the wake of this unprecedented marriage.  Rather, we will take the full sum of the happiness and sadness that each of them underwent; we will hold them up, weigh them carefully, and pronounce our verdict, as storytellers immemorial have, on the resolution of our tale: 

They all lived happily ever after. 








Published in: on June 28, 2019 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Afternoon Eddies

Some short fiction, a palate cleanser from this year’s NaNo.  

Pine needles, so many pine needles, poking and sticking and filling the air with a seductive calm musk of forest, of danger, of plants grown legion. Jack winced, using one arm to clear the branch in front of him, the other idly brushing away the needles that probed his pants and the tough skin underneath.

This path was familiar, though overgrown now; in the halcyon days of his youth, his almost daily wild trek through this stretch of forest kept all but the heartiest vegetation at bay.  In the half century since, the nettles and the pines and the small weeds that now constellated the ground had fortified the reclaimed territory, had set barbs and thick branches to stave off intruders.  Jack returned here as to a scene of forgotten glory, each labored step through the brush an achievement, a small mote of progress in his reconnaissance of his boyhood haunt.

A needle jabbed through the knuckle at the base of his thumb, breaching the skin and finding purchase in the soft tissue between bone and ligature.  Jack gasped, feeling the thick pine and pollen dust racing into his nostrils and settling in his chest.

-why have i come here?-

A wind announced its arrival, rustling the tops of the trees before enveloping Jack.  Leaves and dirt rose in its wake, tickling his ankles, the cold, sweet air startling him and breaking the pace of his progress.

It was getting late, the afternoon sun angled too low to counter the chill breeze.  Shadows long and eldritch danced as their progenitor flora swayed to the wind. Jack knew he should go back, to find his aunt; if he came in before sunset, she was apt to bedevil him with a wet kiss on the cheek, and reward him with a cookie.  She used maple syrup in the cookies; they squished under the smallest pressure of his jaw and melted into molasses behind his teeth. Jack could taste them now, could feel the warm, familiar smell rise into his nose from the back of his mouth. Aunt Millie’s cookies.  Aunt Silly, he had called her.

But no, Aunt Silly- Aunt Millie- had died, years ago.  That house had been sold, and with it, any claim Jack and his clan held on the vaguely titled plot of forest.  So why was he here?

The wind intensified.  The pitch of the rustling trees deepened as the tallest trees bowed lower, acknowledging the passage of air and weather.  Clouds poured above, a celestial river of white that gave way to dark gray. Jack felt like an earthbound raft traversing river rapids, hoping the sky above stayed white and fluffy, mentally steering his patch of ground away from the dark, treacherous sprinkling of storm clouds overhead.  

All at once, Jack was wet.  He hadn’t felt the rain fall, but he could hear it, a susurration above and all around him.  It seemed to be everywhere, a thousand points of barbed water dinging and careening off everything in the forest.  He couldn’t see the rain falling, though, and looked around for some visual confirmation of the storm.

The forest aroma intensified, pine and decaying leafs misting around him.  It was a pleasant smell, though somehow sad, even wistful. It was the smell of yesteryear, of careless youth, of seasons changing and passing, rolling forward, always forward, into the next.

Jack put a hand to his hair: it was soaked.  The loud but invisible rain had drenched him.  Above, few white fluffs remained, the sky now overrun with menacing dark leviathans that filtered out the diminishing light of the fast-setting sun.  

At once, brilliant white forks appeared overhead, and three distinct claps shook Jack’s ears and caused him to start.  He closed his eyes, feeling drops of warm water fall from their lids, glancing off his legs. When he opened them, the storm was gone- the sky was clear, it was mid-day, the sun surging warm waves over his wet body.  A bird chirruped somewhere above him. The ground was dry.

-what on earth?-

Three claps, louder than the first, stirred something deep in his breast.  He closed his eyes again, and this time they opened slowly. Jack was prone on his back, his face and hair dripping wet.  Sunlight and shadows swapped places on the ceiling above him as the blackout curtains rustled in the breeze from the window.  Jack felt a pillow under his head, touched his brow. It was damp. Dropping both elbows beside him, he lifted his body a few strained inches, feeling the wet sheets pull away and turn instantly cold as he relaxed back down onto them.  

His hand went to his leg: no pine needles.  No bird sounds. No forest scents, only the antiseptic smell of the humidifier, and the sour, vinegar odor of his own sweat.  Three sudden claps caused him to jump- they were knocks on his door. With considerable effort, Jack sat up, swinging his legs to the floor, feeling the pins and needles ebb and vanish as the blood started to flow.

Jack stood using a hand against the wall for balance as the other swept the curtain aside.  Below, standing just outside his door, were two men in suits. One had brown wavy hair; the other was starting to bald.  Jack knew why they were here. He had long expected them, dreaded them. They were from the army, come to deliver sad and solemn news.  Jack had a premonition about this, knew they would come. He knew what they would say, and how he would react. It was as though he had rehearsed this very moment a dozen times in his mind.  

Jack slowly walked to his closet, pulling out a long robe to cover his sweat-through night clothes.  He closed the closet door and stopped, disconcerted. This was wrong; he wasn’t wearing a robe. It was a white shirt, with a blazer and a loosened tie, as though he had just come home from work, was still making the transition into casual clothing.  The officer had even remarked on his tie, some inane compliment. And- more darkly- it was this tie he would invoke in his passing consideration of suicide, a momentary thought of hanging himself from the ceiling fan. He would never do that- would never even give the thought a proper name- but he remembered the tie, of that he was certain.  

Jack opened the closet again.  There was a white shirt, slightly wrinkled, but serviceable.  He quickly pulled it over his arms, buttoning from the top down, aged fingers made deft by decades of muscle memory.  The tie, though, if only he could remember the correct tie! Jack worried for a moment that his visitors would give up, would leave before he was ready.  

“I’m coming!” he yelled, voice unsteady, in the direction of the window.

Perhaps the tie wasn’t important.  At least, the type of tie. It just had to be a tie, any tie worthy of remarking on.  Jack found one of black and white gingham and pulled it loosely around his neck, knotting it without tightening.  It was perfect.

As he left the bedroom, Jack ticked through all the details of this encounter.  He would open the door, and the younger of the two men would call him sir, would confirm his name.  Then the older man would say that Michael had died, that he was honorable, and use other nice adjectives that Jack would scarcely hear and soon forget.  A rare and frightening tightness would grip his chest, and, searching for any acceptable words to speak, Jack would invite them inside. Karen would make ask who was there from the kitchen, and Jack would tell her to bring waters, that they had two guests.  

Karen would bring the water and a small plate of cookies, still oblivious to the nature of the visit.  She would blanch when she saw them sitting on the sofa, all starched uniform blue with explosions of medals on the breast.  She would shake, spilling one of the waters, they would call her ma’am, she would start to sob before they could say anything else.  

Jack paused on the staircase.

-i should put a hand towel in the den, to clean up the water.-

He turned at the bottom of the stairs, away from the door and towards the inside of the home.  This was wrong. Karen wasn’t here, she had died, not so very long ago. There would be no spilled water, no spilled tears.  Michael had a gravestone in a large cemetery in Virginia; Jack had visited there, had laid flowers on the grave. It was all wrong, it was out of place on the timeline.  Jack was angry as he reached the door and flung it open.

“You’re too late!” he said, pointing an accusing finger at the visitors.  

The two men stiffened up.  Their army uniforms were wrong, too.  They looked like businessmen, in neat white shirts and black suits.  They scarcely even looked like men; Jack would be surprised if they were a day over twenty one.  Their only medals were shiny name tags that Jack had to squint to read. He glanced back and forth between the baby-faced visitors and the incongruous word Elder on the badges.

“Um, good afternoon, sir,” said the taller of the two.  “How are you today?”

Jack opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.  The visitors glanced at one another.

“My name is Elder Brown, and this is Elder Lee.  It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”

“I’m Jack,” he said, definitively, extending a proud hand.  Elder Brown took the hand and shook, then passed it to Elder Lee, who did the same.  

“Do you have a few minutes to talk about faith?  We are taking a survey in this neighborhood, and asking some questions about God and our place in the world.  Do you ever think about those things?”

Jack considered it.  He did think about God, all the time, but those were private thoughts, and some part of him knew that his musings were not safe for public airing.  

“Oh, from time to time,” he demurred.

“That’s wonderful!” Elder Brown said, as both visitors broke into wide grins.  “Would you mind if we step inside?”

Jack glanced over his shoulder.  Inside, that’s where they want to come.  To his place, his sanctuary. Of course, he has visitors all the time.  The den is usually immaculate, not one item out of place. In the middle distance, he saw the sofa, covered in balled-up newspaper and dirty clothing.  The coffee table, spackled with used dishes, would need tidying before guests could be admitted. Karen would have his head if he didn’t clean up before having company.  

“My, uh, place isn’t very tidy, I’m afraid,” said Jack.

“Oh, we don’t mind!” Elder Lee cut in.  “The truth is, we’ve been walking for several hours, and it would be good just to get off our feet for a few minutes.”

Unable to think of a counterargument, Jack stood aside, gesturing admission, and the elders crossed his threshold, waiting patiently for him just inside the door.  

“You can, uh, sit over there.  I’ll make space,” Jack pointed towards the sofa, and staggered in its direction.

“We can help with that, if you like,” said Elder Brown.  “Here, let me fetch those dishes for you. Do you want them in the kitchen?”

It was moving too fast for Jack.  The young men- boys, really- flitted to and fro in a whirlwind of activity.  Dishes and refuse were swept up in their wake, re-deposited out of sight. It was over in an instant, and the room looked almost tidy.  

“Would you like a glass of water?” Jack said.  The elders were seated on the sofa now, their eddies of motion evidently spent.  

“Yes, please!” said Elder Lee, with boyish enthusiasm.  

With a nod, Jack retreated to the kitchen, where he searched the cupboards for clean glasses.  He needed to pour the water carefully, and bring it to the den without spilling. He mentally checked through the constituent parts of the task, determined to be more careful this time.  

-why are they here?-

It must be another volley from his daughter.  They were here to convince him to move into a new place, to give up his home.  The nerve of these people, to barge in here and tell him he couldn’t live alone!  They talked over his meek objections. When he spilled the water- just a careless tangling of his feet!- they made much of it, wielding it as proof positive that he needed to leave.  The destination was hazy, but Jack could see through them. They wanted him in a home, not in his home, but a home for people at the end of their days, who couldn’t be trusted to live unsupervised.  It was a second childhood, he remembered thinking, and he was not going softly.

Jack filled each cup only halfway.  This time, he would not spill it, would measure each step slowly, deliberately.  They would see that he can still function, can still do the mundane tasks of life that silently delineate between those worthy of independence, and those whose vitality is spent.  He would show them!

Both cups in hand, Jack began his perilous trek, shuffling his feet just an inch off the floor, finding a stable rhythm.  In twenty strides, he reached the coffee table, and began to lower the cups, feeling the strain in his back as he hunched towards the landing pad.  Elder Brown reached out and intercepted the lander before touchdown, passing one to Elder Lee and snatching the other for himself.

“Thank you,” Elder Lee said.  Jack stood, half-hunched, frozen, slow to realize that his mission had been an unmitigated success.  He smiled and nodded, easing himself upright and rounding the table to the easy chair, into which he sunk majestically.  

“Do you ever think about what comes after?” Elder Brown said, sipping his water.  

Right to the point, then, Jack smirked.  It is time to do battle.

“I think that I stay here.”

The elders exchanged glances.  “I mean, what comes after you leave here?  What comes next?”

“There is no next!” Jack raised his voice.  “I stay here until I die! And I’m not going anywhere else.  I make do just fine on my own.”

Elder Brown looked at Elder Lee again, who shrugged.  An awkward moment passed.

“After we die, I mean,” said Elder Brown.  “Where do we go then?”

Jack thought about this.  Perhaps he had misjudged the situation.  Come to think of it, these boys didn’t look like they came from a nursing home.  Religious folk, then. Come to spread the gospel. Only they were so young. Maybe he should put them in touch with Pastor Abrams, he liked talking about theology.  His sermons always went long, Jack remembered counting the minutes while his stomach rumbled its lunchtime protest.

“I don’t know about that,” Jack said.  “Maybe you’d like to talk to Pastor Abrams, I could introduce you.  He loves talking about heaven and hell. In fact, at his funeral his wife told this story about him getting out of a speeding ticket by telling the officers that he would need to give an extra tithe to make up for the violation of the law.”

Once again, the elders exchanged looks, this time with concern.  

“So, he has passed on?” said Elder Lee.  

Jack stopped, considering.  Yes, that sounded right, he had been at Pastor Abrams’ funeral.  He wouldn’t be available to talk shop with these young people.

“I suppose so,” Jack conceded.

“You live here alone?” Elder Brown ventured.

“I do,” Jack said proudly.  “I have a girl who comes by each week to take care of a few things, since I move more slowly these days.”

The words spilled out of his head before he could catch them.  He had a girl? Who was that? It sounded right, but he couldn’t place her.  Natalia? Tatiana? Something that sounded Russian. When had she last been here?  When was she expected? Jack could never keep it straight. He was seized by worry, that these young people would see his confusion and do something to upset his safety and routine.  

“That’s nice,” said Elder Brown, smiling his acceptance.  “Elder Lee and I are helping people, too, by spreading the good news about Jesus Christ.  Do you believe in Jesus?”

“I do,” said Jack, relieved.

“Wonderful!” Elder Lee clapped his hands.  “Our church believes in spreading Jesus’ teachings, and showing people how faith can transform their lives.  Would you like to join us in a small prayer? Since this is your home, maybe you can say something appropriate, or we can, if you prefer.”

Jack mentally braced against the onslaught of words.  They wanted him to pray? Praying for Jack was not a performative act, it was a silent reflection that belonged in a church.  

“You can go ahead,” Jack said, suspiciously.  

The Elders bowed their heads.  “Our father, who art in Heaven…”

Jack knew this one, tuned out the familiar words, his eyes closed.  He remembered the lilt of the prayer, hearing it echo through the chapel at Karen’s funeral, the sad timbre of the pastor, using the benediction to plead with their maker to treat Karen’s soul with kindness and mercy.  The realization that, when this day of ritual was complete, he would be alone, left by himself for the first time in decades. Imagining waking up in bed, with Karen not there. Tears flooded his eyes and leaked down the deep crevices of his cheeks.  

“Are you okay, Jack?” one of the boys said.  Jack opened his eyes, feeling a rush of water escaping down his face.  

“Yes, uh, I just need a moment.  Excuse me, please.”

Jack stood with considerable effort, and moved towards the staircase.  “I just need to fetch something,” he muttered, using his arms on the railing to propel him upward, towards his bedroom.  Below, the boys sat with their water, watching him with intense interest.

Jack reached the bedroom, and sat on his bed, taking a tissue from the nightstand to his wet face.  He could smell his own sweat on the pillow case beside him. That smell reminded him of deep sleep, of the surreal experience of waking, of the warm embrace of the blankets.  Unthinking, he lifted his legs and tucked them under, feeling the weight and pressure of the comforter on his body. He blew his nose, and then set his head down on the pillow, staring blankly at the ceiling.  

Time must be passing, Jack thought, and there was something he still needed to do today.  It was something to do with Michael, and with Karen, or maybe Pastor Abrams. He searched the ceiling for answers, but the dancing shadows and reflected sunlight held no answers.  The room grew dimmer as his lids half-closed. His body sank into the mattress inch by inch, the soft foam taking his torso into a slow embrace.

A creak on the stairs.  “Are you okay, Jack?”

It was a young voice- one of the boys, the elders.  So they were still here. Jack ran through a checklist of actions needed to see them off properly.  It seemed daunting.

“I’m in bed,” he called down.  “You can see yourself out.”

“Do you need anything?  Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, just a bit tired.  Thank you for the prayer,” Jack said.  Out of his peripheral vision, he saw the face of one of the boys- which one, he could not tell, the name tag concealed by the door frame and too far off to read in any event.  Jack shut his eyes, performing sleep, hoping the youngster would leave him be.

After a moment, he heard a renewed creaking on the banister, and muffled voices from below, followed by the sound of the front door opening and closing again.  

Jack was still dressed in the white shirt and loose tie, but the bed was a comfort, and there would be no harm in taking a nap.  He allowed himself to sink deeper, to begin to drift, his thoughts swirling back to the taste of molasses, his cheek wet with the unwanted kisses of his Aunt Silly.  


Published in: on December 10, 2018 at 9:54 am  Leave a Comment  
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For Halloween, some horror fiction for y’all.  

I must have needed sleep real bad last night. I tried to get up at 7 like before- old habits die hard- but my body felt heavy and gravity felt strong. It’s not the sickness, thank God for that, it was just that I felt tired. Bone tired.

My brain was slow to wake up, too. I put on the radio, and it must’ve played for fifteen minutes before I realized it was the same newscast from yesterday morning. Or was it the day before?  No, it had to be yesterday, because it had that thing about the power grid that scared me and Amy so bad.

At first I thought it was just the same story- I mean, it’s an important one, and if we’re gonna lose power soon we have a right to know- but there was this phrase the anchor used, barring some change, soon, the CDC won’t be the only ones in the dark. I remember that phrase, and that little self-satisfied public radio announcer tone she put on it. It was the same broadcast. The news was on reruns.

Now what the hell does that mean?

Amy was still sleeping, thank God for that, too.  She’d curled herself up into a little ball.  She had to eat something, or else she’d be more likely to catch it, they say a weak immune system puts a body at risk.  I pushed my feet over the bed, a little trick to let the gravity work just a bit in my favor, and got up.  I decided to go fuss around in the kitchen, maybe I could find something to fix for her to eat.  Maybe we just missed something yesterday, and there’s still some food left over.  

I pulled myself upright, feet on the ground.  I could hear this yowling sound, seemed like it was coming from the apartment above us, definitely a cat.  Never heard that before, not in this apartment.  Maybe its owner got sick.  Poor thing was probably hungry.  

Then I noticed something else- the traffic noises.  Junction Boulevard was usually loud as hell, especially too early in the morning.  People honked at each other all the time, no regard for all the folks sleeping in the tall residential buildings like mine.  It wasn’t just horns, either, it was motorcycles, blaring subwoofers, shouted conversations in a hundred different languages.  But now it was quiet.  That couldn’t be good.

I figured I should probably turn on the lights.  It wouldn’t bother Amy, she could sleep through anything.  I got about a foot or so from the switch but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.  What if we’ve already lost power?  The thought terrified me.  I stood there a minute and lost my nerve.

The cat was still yowling, but it was the silence from outside the window that bothered me more.  I could see daylight poking around the side of the window shades, decided that opening them would work just as well as turning on the lights, minus the paralyzing fear.  

I pulled the curtain open, and light flooded into the room.  It was true what they say, the sun still rises.  I had to blink a few times to let my eyes adjust.  The first thing I noticed was that the streetlight was still on, and a few apartments across 35th Avenue had their lights on.  That meant we probably still had our power, too.  

I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye.  It was coming from the sidewalk across the street, this woman was making her way down the block, using the side of the apartment building there for support.  She was obviously sick, you could tell by the way she was moving.  It was more of an amble than a walk, like her inner ears had forgotten how to balance her.  I watched for a minute, and then she startled, straightened up, and started running into the street at a long angle.  

I moved my head higher up on the frame to see what had her attention.  Then, another person appeared, a short Latino man, running right at her.  Their paths met in the middle of the street, and they started circling each other, just inches apart, frantically coughing into each other’s faces.  It only lasted a few seconds.  Then they stopped, like they realized the other person was also sick, and turned away from each other, parting ways.    

It was goddamned terrifying.  

I looked down at the street.  Nobody was driving, and no cars were running, but they were lined up as usual along both curbs, parked both legally and illegally.  That wasn’t unusual; that was just Queens.  

There was one big white van, though, that was parked right in the middle of the street, and at an angle, too, that asshole.  Totally blocking the street.  My first thought was that it must have been an accident, maybe the driver got sick and lost consciousness or something, but I could see that the driver seat was empty, and his door was just a little bit open.  No, this special snowflake just stopped their car there and got out.  Guess they figured there weren’t many police around, and those that were had other things to care about than an illegally parked car.  

I pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt from the hamper.  I didn’t plan on going anywhere today, so it didn’t much matter what I wore, but it was a little cold to just walk around naked.  I started for the kitchen, and as I passed the lightswitch again I flipped it- light came on- and then flipped it back off again, just checking, funny I had been so scared to do that before.  

The kitchen cabinets were already open.  We’d done this same thing yesterday.  I looked inside, hoping against hope there was going to be, I don’t know, a jar of peanut butter or a can of tuna, something substantial.  I couldn’t see anything but bags of tea, spices, and some baking supplies.  I stood there, ramrod still, for almost half a minute, just looking into the dark recesses of the cabinet, and decided to just empty it out and sort things.  Maybe something would turn up.

I was shuttling cylinders of dried spices to the kitchen table when I heard a tapping sound, so I stopped to listen.  I could still hear that damn cat.  The tapping came again, louder, sounded like somebody was at my door.  I put down the spices and went to take a look through the peephole.

It was Helen, our upstairs neighbor.  


-Oh, I’m so glad you’re here.  Let me in!

She was speaking in a stage whisper. I hesitated.

-Uh, are you sick?

-No, please, just open the door.

-Sorry, but…how do I know you’re not sick?

-Sick people don’t talk.

I thought for a second, trying to remember if I had ever heard about sick people talking.  My mind was blank.

-I don’t know that.

She let out a breath like she was exasperated with me.

-Look, I can’t stay out here.  Please, let me in.  I’m not sick I swear!

Something about the sound of the word “swear” with her British accent convinced me, I still don’t know why, and I opened the door.  As soon as I did, I realized what a foolish risk it was, and half-expected her to start coughing in my face.  She did come up to me real fast, but instead of coughing gave me a big hug.  She took off a bulging backpack and set it down in the entryway.  

-Is Amy okay?

-Yeah, she’s sleeping.

-I’m glad to see you.  

-Have you been outside?  How bad is it?

-It’s bad.  I haven’t even left the building, but everyone is either sick, dead, gone, or barring their doors.  

-I think we might have to leave soon.  We’re out of food.  I was just looking around to make sure I haven’t missed anything.  

She followed me into the kitchen, where I resumed emptying out the cabinet while we talked.  

-How has Amy been doing?

-Not great.  She’s sleeping a lot, and she won’t eat unless I remind her.  

-Do you want me to talk to her?  

-Yeah, I’m sure she’d like that.  Mostly she just needs to eat something.  I’m gonna figure out if there’s any calories to be had and bring it to her.

-I have some crackers in my bag.

I perked up at the word “crackers.”

-Oh!  In that case, yeah, she could really use that.


She walked back into the entryway and pulled a small package of peanut butter crackers out of a side pocket of her backpack.  She set the bag back down and started to walk away.  Then, she saw me watching her.  She gave me a funny look, and picked up the bag, taking it with her.  

-Uh, Helen, would you mind if I…


She opened the small package, pulled off two crackers, and handed them to me.  

-Thank you.

She smiled and started for the bedroom.

I ate the crackers slowly, letting each bite sit on my tongue until it turned moist and sweet.  I tried not to think about how long it had been since my last true meal.

It took me about five minutes to finish emptying out the cabinet.  I opened the fridge, but there was nothing except a half-pint of spoiled half-and-half.  I checked the sink- the water was still running.  That was good.  We had filled the bathtub yesterday just in case. 

Helen came back down the hall.  

-How is she?

-She ate.  She knew who I was.  She isn’t sick.

-A very clinical answer.  

-You can take the scientist out of the laboratory…

I laughed.  

-Well, I finished taking a food inventory.  We don’t have anything to eat, really.  

-Can I look?


She came into the kitchen and scanned the counter.

-You have a jar of flour.

-Yeah, but no butter, milk, or anything else.  We don’t even have sugar left.

-True, but you can eat flour.  Just put it in a little water.  

-Ew.  Isn’t that dangerous?

She thought about it for a second.

-You can get sick from raw flour, sure.  But it’s a small chance.  Whereas, if you don’t eat anything at all, you have a quite high chance of starving to death.  

-Fair point.  How much do you eat?

-You might find this hard to believe, but I’ve never studied the recommended daily allowances of raw flour.  I’d just eat as much as you need.  But don’t overdo it.  Just have a spoonful at a time, and then wait awhile.  It might take some time to get into your system, and you don’t have a lot of it.  

-We’re gonna have to go out eventually.  There’s probably still food at the store, but if we wait too long other people are gonna clear it out.  

-I agree.  That’s part of the reason I came down.

-You want to go together?

-No, uh, how should I put this?  I’m not sure you’d be tremendously helpful, if I’m being honest.

-That wasn’t it.


-Whatever you were trying to say, that wasn’t how you should have put it.  

She missed the humor.

-Right, well, I think I remember that you and Amy go camping, and have camping supplies, right?


-You mentioned a machete once.  Do you still have it?

-A machete? Yeah, we do, but why?

-In case somebody tries to infect me.  I’d rather have three feet of steel between me and them.  

-So your plan is to go shopping, and to chop up anybody who gets in your way?

She smiled.  

-Something like that.  

-Why not just find a gun?

-This is New York City.  Where do you expect I’d find a gun?

I shrugged.

-Besides, guns are loud, and I don’t want to attract attention.  Now, can I please borrow your machete?

I fetched it from the closet.

-I’m bringing a big backpack; I’ll grab you some supplies as well.  If it goes well I’ll make a bunch of trips while it’s light out.  

-Be careful.  

-I will.  That’s what this is for.

She brandished the weapon and struck a martial pose with it.

-I’ll be back.

The door closed.  

I went back into the kitchen, feeling a little sore at Helen’s lack of confidence.  Why didn’t she think I’d be helpful?  I mean, I’m not exactly the fighting sort, but I could at least have helped carry things back.  

I looked at the sad stacks of spices and teas.  Tea would be nice, at least it has flavor.  The gas had been off for three days, after a few explosions elsewhere in Jackson Heights.  I could put some tea in cold water and shake it around, it would be something to do.  

I heard creaking in the hallway, and went to look.  It was Amy.

-Hey!  You’re up!

-I couldn’t sleep.  There’s this cat screaming upstairs.

-Yeah, I heard him earlier.

-Where’s Helen?

-She went on a mission to get some food from the store.

-She did?!  Is that safe?

-Not really.  She borrowed our machete.

-Are you serious?  


There was a brief pause, and then she started laughing, shaking in her purple bathrobe.  It was contagious, and we both doubled over.

-I’m just imagining her like the tomb raider or something, cleaving her way through zombies and fetching the hidden treasures in the canned soup aisle.

-Do you want some cold tea?

-That sounds lovely.  

I made a second cup, using the cocktail shaker to steep it faster.  We sat in the living room near the window and clinked mugs.  The tea tasted bitter.

-Did she say when she’d be back?

-Soon.  She’s gonna make a bunch of trips.  

-I want to check on that cat upstairs.

Amy, we can’t.  It’s too dangerous.  

-If Helen can go to the supermarket, we can go up a flight of stairs.

-And kick through the door?

-I mean, maybe.

-That’s going to draw attention from anyone in earshot.  Also, she has our machete.  

She thought about that and frowned.

-Well, maybe when she gets back we can ask her.  

I doubted that level-headed Helen would be receptive to a “save the cat” mission, especially when food was already in short supply, but I figured it wasn’t worth the battle.

-Sure, sweetie, we’ll ask her.

-Is there any news?

-No, cable’s still down, so there’s no internet.  And NPR is running yesterday’s news on a loop.  

-That’s weird.

-Yeah.  Doesn’t sound great.  

We sat there in silence and nursed our tea.

-Helen should be back by now.  

-Maybe she took a load back to her place first.  She likes to be prepared.  

-Yeah, maybe.  

I pulled the curtains open and looked out on the street.  It was empty.  

-How long do you think this is going to last?

-I don’t want to guess.  I think we should just get as much food as we need for as long as we can.  They’ll probably have to send in the military or something to clean this up, and I’m guessing we’ll want to just be hunkered down at home until that happens.  


We finished our tea. There wasn’t much more to talk about.  I pulled a book off the shelf, some vampire story by Anne Rice, one of the newer ones. I was about twenty pages into it when Amy called from by the window.

-Uh, baby?  


-Can you take a look at this?

I put a bookmark in and closed the novel, crossing the room to her.  She pointed out the window.

-Is that ours?

At first I didn’t see anything.  Then I saw a glint of light coming from the intersection, barely within view.  It was a machete on the ground.

-Oh, shit.

Amy took three fast, deep breaths and began to cry.  I was stunned.  

-What are we going to do?

I couldn’t think of any good response.  

-Do you think she maybe made it back inside?

-Probably not.  She wouldn’t have left her weapon.  

-Maybe she dropped it so she could run faster.

That sounded unlikely.


We sat on the couch, holding each other.  I was staring at the wall, unable to will myself into action.  Amy curled into a ball next to me.  I listed for the cat, and didn’t hear it yelling anymore.  After a few minutes, I heard another noise.

-I think there’s someone in the hallway.

She didn’t respond.  I carefully disentangled myself from her body and walked to the door.  There was definitely somebody moving around on our floor. I opened the peephole.  

I could see the back of an unfamiliar head just five feet from our door.  I leaned into get a closer look, and made a dull thud as the door leaned forward in its frame.  The head turned around sharply, and I saw the rheumy eyes of a sick person.  

All at once, he lurched forward and started violently coughing toward the peephole.  I jumped back, grateful for the small piece of glass that had just saved me from certain infection.  I heard the sound of running in the hallway, and then the sounds of several more sick people coughing insistently at the closed door.  They pushed against it, but not hard, and it was bolted from the inside.

-What’s going on?

Amy was standing in the living room.  She looked concerned, and the concern turned to fear when she saw my face.

-Is that…?

-Yeah.  Let’s stay away from the door.

-Can they get in?

-I don’t think so.

The coughing didn’t stop, a wheezing, rasping series of explosive hacks separated from us by just a few slabs of plywood.  

The lights turned off, flickered on again, and then went out for good.

Amy walked up to me and enveloped me in her bathrobe, the purple terrycloth warm against the gooseflesh of my arms.

-I’m scared.

-Yeah, baby, I’m scared too.


Published in: on October 24, 2017 at 11:49 am  Leave a Comment  
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