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“At Home” a onKindle bonus by Anne Leigh Parrish

Today we’re featuring a short by Anne Leigh Parrish the author of “All the Roads That Lead From Home” now available:

(from your Kindle eReader)
(from the web)

AT HOME

Anne Leigh Parrish

The scratching on the door disturbed another dream about Barry.  He was on the dock, limping towards the boat.  That bad leg of his, Nora thought.  She was both angry and afraid.  She screamed his name.  A storm rose suddenly, chopping the water into furrows Barry couldn’t navigate.  In truth he was an excellent seaman.  He was at home on water.  He grew up around rivers and streams.  He fished, waded, and rafted.  When they moved to the lake, a boat became an absolute necessity.  Nora thought it was extravagant, something they couldn’t afford.  He didn’t consult her before buying it.  Just dropped the title on the dining room table where she sat with a cup of cold tea.  A few months after, he died at home in his armchair, not on his boat.

The scratching was insistent, and getting louder.  In the dream the noise was a tree branch scraping the hull.  Nora wondered why a tree branch would scrape the hull of a capsized boat.  By the time she rose from bed and thudded crossly down the stairs, the scratching was frantic.

“All right, all right,” she said.

When her fingers touched the knob she realized she was opening her door to an animal.  Of course it was an animal.  It had to be.  People didn’t scratch on doors.  Unless they were insane.  What if that were it – a nutcase out there on all fours, clawing away.  She should look through the window first and see.  She didn’t look through the window.  She opened the door.  The dog trotted into the kitchen, stopped in front of her, and shook the rain from its fur.  Some drops landed on her bare feet.  Nora yelped.

“Sorry about that,” the dog said.

“What?”

“You wouldn’t happen to have a towel, would you?”

Nora touched the door jamb.  She didn’t feel entirely well.

“Listen, lady, I’m soaking wet here,” the dog said.

Nora stared at him.  He looked cold and miserable.  She brought a towel from the downstairs bathroom.  It smelled bad.  She must not have put it through the laundry for quite some time.  Barry died four months before, and her zeal for housework had waned.

She ran the towel over the dog’s fur.  He was a mutt, on the small side.  Most of him was brown, but there was white on three of his four feet, and also on the tip of his tail.  The tail curled and sagged to the left.  She pulled her fingers through the fur, which was soft and thick.  His ears stood up straight, then bent over at the very top.  They gave him a comical air.

“Better?” she asked.

“Much.”

When Nora was a little girl she believed animals could speak and simply chose not to.  She coaxed her cat to use words.  The cat had been unimpressed by her attempts.  All it ever did was purr and occasionally hiss.  It never meowed.  Looking back, the cat had been strange that way.  Now here was this talking dog.  Nora considered the possibility that she’d gone insane.  Insanity could be a game changer in a person’s life.  She’d have to give that some serious thought.

The dog was looking eagerly up at her.

“What?” Nora asked.

“Some food would be nice.”

“I don’t have any.”

“You quit eating?”

“I mean dog food.”

The tip of the dog’s nose quivered as it sniffed something.

“Listen, whatever you eat, I can eat, too.  Trust me on that one,” he said.

Nora lived on canned soup and crackers.  Without Barry, her appetite had dwindled.  But just the other day her daughter called to say she was stopping by.  Maureen, at thirty-two, lived alone in a seedy apartment she paid for by working as a telemarketer at her own kitchen table.  She was a painter, and the small living room was choked with her canvases.  She didn’t take very good care of herself sometimes, especially when she was in a “fallow” period.  Nora had offered to feed her.  Maureen’s favorite meal was eggs and toast.  She didn’t come by, though.  She called to say she’d been inspired by the sight of a crow attacking a flock of pigeons under the bridge.  What she was doing under the bridge she didn’t say, and Nora didn’t ask.

The dog sat politely at her feet while she scrambled, then cooked the eggs.  She put extra butter on the toast out of habit.  Barry had loved his butter.  His arteries were clogged with plaque.  Learning that, Nora felt guilty at all the butter she’d served him over the years.  Barry’s doctor told her that he’d nagged Barry about his high cholesterol a number of times to no avail, and that in the end Barry’s death couldn’t be blamed on anyone but himself.

She served the meal on one of her good plates.  She put it on the floor in front of the dog.  He ate enthusiastically, sending bits of food everywhere.  Nora wished he hadn’t.  That behavior, along with the idea of having to pick up shit in those hideous blue bags she saw people carrying around, was why they’d never owned a dog, though Barry had wanted one.  So had Maureen.

When the dog finished eating, it lay down by the furnace vent and put its head on its paws.  It slept.  Nora put the dirty plate in the sink.  She sat at the table and lit a cigarette.  She took up smoking again after Barry died.  He had made her quit years ago.  He berated her for being weak and self-indulgent.  Barry lived by a code of conduct that didn’t include personal freedom.  If she put on a few pounds, he scolded her.  If she sat after dinner without doing the dishes right away, he sighed until she got to her feet.  She wasn’t allowed to spend money he didn’t approve in advance, yet he denied himself little.  That boat was an excellent example.  He  needed compensation for what he’d suffered,  polio as a child topped the list.

Suddenly, she was exhausted.  She didn’t even know the time.  Dawn lightened the sky.  She took herself upstairs to bed.  She slept hard, without dreams.  She woke with the dog on her feet.  It lay on its side, all four limbs stretched out straight and stiff, and she wondered if it had died.  Its ribs rose and fell, and a distinct whistling noise escaped its snout.  She kicked the dog from her feet.  It wriggled, and lifted its head to stare at her dreamily.

“You can’t sleep on my bed,” Nora said.

“Why not?”

“Because you’re a dog, and dogs don’t sleep on beds.”

“Says who?”

By then Nora was sitting up, scratching her head.  Her hair was short and fluffy.  Her hair had been long when she married Barry.  When she had Maureen she cut it shorter, then just last year she cut it the shortest it had ever been.  A woman in her sixties doesn’t need a lot of hair to get in the way, she said.

“Follow me downstairs.  I’m going to put you out so you can do your business, and I’m going to leave you out for a while so I have time to think,” Nora said.

“Okie-dokie.”

With the dog outside, Nora sat at her table and chain-smoked.  The situation needed concentration and smart decision-making.  Adopting a dog was a big commitment, one she wasn’t sure she was up to.  Then again, what was she up to?  On her own these last few months she just drifted around like a ball of dust.  Was she still grieving?  Or just remembering that last awful day?

She’d been on edge.  So had Barry.  He was restless, bad-tempered, and told her he didn’t care what she thought of his boat.  He deserved it, after all the years he spent working and supporting his family.  He wasn’t the only one who supported the family.  Nora worked for many years as a bookkeeper in a home improvement warehouse.  Her job didn’t pay as well as Barry’s did.  He was a research chemist for a national lab.  He developed new kinds of toothpaste.  One in particular was a big hit because it restored lost enamel.  In the early years he was offered stock instead of salary.  Nora told him they couldn’t afford to.  When the company took off, Barry was spiteful, and blamed her for his lost opportunity.  We couldn’t take the chance.  You said so, yourself, she reminded himHe didn’t speak to her for days.

That final evening, riding another wave of resentment, he brought up the boat again.  She told to sit down, and that she’d make him some tea.  He didn’t want tea.  It’ll help you relax, she said.  Sometimes she dropped a Valium in, and loaded in extra sugar to disguise the taste.  The Valium were his, on the doctor’s advice.  Something to keep him calm, and bring his blood pressure down a little.  That, along with his cholesterol, fell into the category of things Barry knew might harm him and did nothing to change.  Drinking, too, though he cut back on that towards the end.  The whiskey began not to agree with him.  Nora wasn’t sure she liked him when he drank less.  He was grumpier than before, often bitter.  That boat is the only thing that gives me any pleasure at all!  Those were his last words from the living room chair he finally agreed to slump himself down in while she made the tea he didn’t want.  She found him there, eyes open, trained on the television set, which was off.  His reflection on the screen was eerier than his actual dead face.

She needed a project.  An occupation, pastime, something to get up every morning to think about and look forward to.

She stood up and went to the window.  The dog was digging in her garden under a lush rhododendron bush.  Its rear end was up in the air, wiggling with excitement.  The dirt flew in rhythmic sprays.  She tapped on the window.  Then she tapped harder.  The dog lifted its head and stared at her.  She beckoned it, and opened the door.

“You can stay,” she told it, “but you’re not walking on my floor with those filthy paws.”

“You’re the boss.”

The dog allowed her to wipe the bottom of all four feet.  She put the towel in the wash.  She got dressed, and told the dog to stay put.  She left and returned later with a collar, leash, bowl, dog food and a bottle of very good wine.  She felt like celebrating.  She admitted that she liked having company again.

After a few days of lavishing care upon the dog, Nora sat him down and said, “It’s time I gave you a name.”

“I’m fine with, ‘Doggie.'”

“Don’t be silly.  My daughter’s coming to visit soon, and I can hardly introduce you as ‘Doggie.'”

“How about Bill?  I look like a Bill, don’t you think?”

Nora didn’t think so, but held her tongue.  The dog, she discovered, was sensitive, easily hurt.  She scolded him about his dropped hair which swirled around the kitchen floor when the heat came on.  His head drooped, and his eyes turned dark, so learned to speak more gently.  The dog – Bill – seemed to appreciate that.

Soon her tone became sweet, a bit sing-song, as if someone had pushed a button and one of a number of pre-recorded statements came out.

“You’re a nice boy, aren’t you?” and “It’s time for a little walkies,” and, “I bet you’d like your din-din now.”

Bill was grateful.  His existence before had been stressful and unsatisfying.  His mistress was cold and critical.  She accused him of bad behavior. “Your personal habits are unfortunate,” she told him more than once.  He didn’t see what she meant.  He was just a dog, and dogs did certain things that the rest of the world might not understand or appreciate.

One night, Nora had another dream about Barry.  This time he walked out of the lake and stood on the starlit shore.  She had been waiting there a long time for him to come back.  When he finally did, he passed her without a word.  She called his name once, then again.

She woke up.  Bill wasn’t in his dog bed under the window.  She put on her bathrobe and went downstairs.  He wasn’t in the kitchen, either.  Maybe she had forgotten to let him back in after his final turn through the garden she always allowed him.  She opened the back door and called his name.  There was no answer.  She went into the living room.  Bill was curled up in Barry’s old easy chair, an ugly thing with scratched arms and dingy green fabric.  She didn’t know why she kept it, when she had always hated it so much.

Bill was deep in sleep.  His paws twitched, and he whimpered.  Nora thought he was probably dreaming about chasing a squirrel.  He was fond of squirrels.  He lunged for them on walks, which caused her to lunge, too.  She didn’t get mad at him for it.  She merely pointed out that his attempts were sure to be unsuccessful.  One time she asked what he’d do with a squirrel if he actually caught it?  He seemed confused by the question.

“Wake up,” she said.  She poked him.  He opened one eye.

“What?”

“What are you doing here?”

“Enjoying my chair.”

Nora sat down on the floor in front of the chair, a position she’d taken more than once when she pleaded with Barry to do something.  Or not to do something.  Bill was now sitting up, scratching roughly behind his left ear, the same place where Barry always had a rash, caused, he was sure, by the laundry soap she used on his pillow case.  He’d slept on his left side, with his back to her.

“Hey, did you hear the one about how my karma ran over my dogma?” Bill asked.

Nora’s felt cold and clammy all over.

“I wish to hell I could laugh,” Bill said.

Nora was distressed.  The situation had gotten out of hand.

“But seriously.  I treated you like a dog, and now I’m the dog.”

Nora pulled the belt of her bathrobe tighter.  She’d lost a fair amount of weight since Barry died.  She lifted her tear-lined face.  Bill lay back down, with his nose neatly on his paws.

“I think I’m going to be sick,” she said.

“Just go up to bed.  I’ll be along in a minute.”

She did as she was told.  In the morning Bill was in his proper place under the window.  She thought it best not to speak of what had passed the night before.  She didn’t doubt what they’d talked about, or what she had discovered, only that it was best to move forward.

That weekend Maureen dropped by without warning.  She was happy again.  Her juices were flowing, she said, and all was well.  She smelled of fresh air and spice.  Her turtleneck had a hole in the sleeve.  So did the knee of her denim coveralls.

“Oh, who’s this?” Maureen asked.

“Bill.”

“He’s quite the character.”  Maureen scratched Bill behind his ears.  He leaned into her hands with a grunt.

Nora poured out two cups of tea.  Maureen hadn’t asked for any, and didn’t drink hers.   She went on rubbing and scratching Bill.  Nora lit a cigarette.  Maureen didn’t complain, though she hated smoking.  She talked about one of the customers she’d called for the telemarking company.  She wanted to ask him about his car insurance needs, and if he’d like to do better.  He wanted to have phone sex with her.  That sort of thing happened, she said.  You never knew who was going to answer the phone, and if they were right in the head or not.  Then she talked about her upstairs neighbor who’d gotten arrested for animal cruelty.  He’d been keeping twelve cats locked up in cages for months without properly feeding them.  No one seemed to know.  The meowing was attributed to stray cats in the alley behind the apartment building.

“Now he’s in a cage,” Maureen said.  She moved on to her work, which was burgeoning.  The attacking crow had inspired her.  There was a lot of Barry in her face, especially around the eyes.  In Barry, the slightly upwards tilt at the corners made him look more sinister than he really was, but it gave Maureen a feminine, mysterious air.  She was neither.  Nora knew that.  Her relationships with men were disastrous, because she was bossy, overbearing, and didn’t bathe regularly.  And as to mystery, it didn’t take long for anyone to see through her pretty quickly to what she really was – anxious, insecure, and not as talented as she thought.

Maureen pushed her still-full cup of tea a few inches away.  She wanted to take Bill for a walk.

“You won’t mind?  Cleaning up after him, I mean,” Nora said.  Maureen said she was fine.  She’d picked up dog shit before.  She took care of a neighbor’s pug for an extended period of time.  Nora hadn’t known that.  There was a lot she didn’t know about her daughter’s life.  She still wasn’t used to that.

When she was alone, Nora sat, smoked, and listened to the wind push the branches of her cherry tree against the window.  Barry had told her to get it trimmed the spring before, and she hadn’t.  She couldn’t remember now why not.  She wondered if Barry would be happy in his new life as Bill, and if they could become close, as they’d been in their early years, before bitterness and stress took over.  Bill had a good head on his shoulders, Nora thought.  And he was good company.  Really, she couldn’t be happier.

Maureen returned.  She removed Bill’s leash, and hung it on the hook she’d taken it from.  Bill walked into the living room, and jumped into his chair.  Maureen sat down at the table with Nora.  She looked shaken.  Her face was white, even her lips were pale.  Nora’s tea had gone cold in her cup.

“What is it, dear?” she asked.

Maureen held her hands together in her lap.

“You know I quit doing drugs years ago,” she said.

“Yes.”

Maureen had had a cocaine problem, then a sleeping pill problem, then a Vicadin problem, then a drinking problem.  One by one they’d eaten part of her away, which time and her art slowly replaced.  It had been almost two years since the alcohol took its turn.  Nora wasn’t sure if sobriety had improved her.

“But still, maybe I’m hallucinating,” Maureen said.

“Why do you say that?”

“That dog talks.”

“What did he say?”

Maureen stared at Nora.

“He asked how I’ve been,” Maureen said.

“How nice!”

“You don’t find that incredibly weird?”

“Why wouldn’t he want to know how you are?”

Maureen’s lower lip wobbled.

“I don’t know if I can handle this,” she said.

“You’ll get used to him, you’ll see.  He’s very easy to get along with.”

Maureen looked at an invisible spot on the kitchen floor.

“Go give him a chance.  Besides, I think he wants to tell you something,” Nora said.

Maureen closed her eyes for a moment.  She got up and went to find Bill.  Nora remained at her post.  The house felt warm, and cozy.  This is how it should always have been, she thought.  The three of them together, getting along, understanding each other, without resentments.  Being able to count on support and friendship.  Maybe Maureen would want to move back home.  Nora wouldn’t mind having her.  And if she went off the rails again, Bill would be there to help.  She took the apple pie she bought two days before out of the refrigerator, three plates from the cupboard and two forks.  Then she went into the living room and said she had a special treat for everyone, and to please join her in the kitchen as soon as they finished their talk.

 

————-

We hope you’ve enjoyed “At Home”

by Anne Leigh Parrish

the author of “All the Roads That Lead From Home” now available:

(from your Kindle device)
(from the web)

“Hovering Above a Homicide” a onKindle spotlight on Tom Kelly

Today we’re featuring a short by Tom Kelly the author of “Cold Crossover” now available:

(from your Kindle)
(from the web)

Here’s a thread I began to develop while writing the book. It’s about parents becoming too involved with their kid’s sports (“helicopter parents”). Many move their kids for “better athletic exposure” and are the downfall of well meaning coaches. What if one of these parents ended up dead?

Hovering Above a Homicide

Elmo “Excellent” Service continued to dog it.

The last man on the court for Saturday morning practice, the six-foot-six string-bean forward needed an eternity to lace up glossy patent-leather Jordans and secure his calf-length Carolina baggies without exposing the top portion of a new pair of white compression undees. A chronic whiner, Elmo proceeded to strut through lay-up drills, skip out on his turn to lead a three-man weave and then sauntered over to the water fountain when his coach began to address the team.

After nineteen years of high-school coaching and five more of full-time scouting I’ve learned the best method of evaluating a player’s skill level and talent is to measure him against another player of his caliber. Making that happen is sometimes impossible, especially in small towns and rural regions where one kid’s abilities are clearly far beyond anyone else in the area. But a time-saving technique to determine what makes a player tick, verify he’s a leader and gauge his genuine impact on a team is to arrive unannounced at a practice session on a day he doesn’t know your coming.

I studied Elmo’s indolence from the cozy balcony of the Port Edwards High School gym, a rarely used upper corner that smelled and felt like a dusty choir loft in a downtown church. Cold, dark and terrific place to hide, particularly for scouts charged with selecting an all-star team. Fans had to lean out over the chest-high walls to view the entire court. Obstructed seating was the norm, but no one really cared. In my mind the creaky bandbox built in 1953 and “The Home of the Roughriders” – in addition to three of the greatest prep basketball games ever played in Washington State – held an even loftier reverence than a House of God. Flawed and funky, uncomfortable and hostile to opponents, the landmark building was the Fenway Park of state hoop and the last remaining gymnasium from a by-gone era dominated by canvas shoes and stain shorts gathered with silver buckles.

“All great and precious things are lonely.”

The familiar voice drifted from behind me. I turned to see a rumpled Harvey Johnston draped across the top three rows, his brown overcoat streaked with rain.

“John Steinbeck,” I said. “East of Eden. But you must be referring to this wonderful, remote venue.”

“Maybe just you in your element.”

I coughed out a surprised laugh and continued to survey the floor.

“So is it your opinion Mr. Service would provide excellent service to your select team?” Johnston said.

“Actually, I was trying to figure out how the kid ever got his nickname,” I said. “Clearly, the young man doesn’t view practice as an important athletic experience. Seems Sluggish Service would be more appropriate.”

“Probably some hick sports writer looking to make a name for himself,” Johnston said. “Or, the guy’s coach.”

“Doubt that. This is the kid’s third school in three years. The two other guys probably had enough of him. I’ve got a feeling we’re looking at a self-named product here.”

We observed the Port Edwards coach crouching crab-like, over-emphasizing the need to remain low while defending the dribble-drive.

“Frankly, Ernie, I thought you’d had enough of coaching this game, too. What’s it been? Four years since you’ve been on the sidelines with an organized team?”

“Been five. I guess the guy who was going handle the all-star team took a job out of state. The organizers needed a warm body and I was probably the only one available. Besides, the team sponsor’s from North Fork and was loyal to me and our teams at Washington High.”

I eased my clipboard on to the bench next to me and turned to face my old fishing partner who just happens to double as the county’s chief criminal investigator.

“Now don’t tell me you came all the way up here to tell me about a new lure. Rivers are still too high . . . How the hell did you find me, anyway?”

“I called the office. Cookie said you were going to check out a new listing on the Skagit and then come up here and catch practice.”

Sneakers screeched on the hardwood floor below. A skinny forward tumbled to the deck and began rubbing a knee. “Help him up, Elmo,” I said quietly.

“Ernie, there’s this kid over at Loyola High,” Johnston said, contracting onto one bench, elbows on thighs. “You ever scout Trent Wheeler? He’s probably a logical candidate for a regional select team. He could use your help – and so could I.”

While Harvey was a big-time fan, he’d never lobbied for a player. “I’ve seen the guy in a few games,” I said. He’s a good shooter with good size. Solid defender. He doesn’t need a lot of outside help from me.”

“I’d like to see him become a better communicator,” Johnston said. “On and off the floor.”

“What?” I said, swerving around on my seat. “Quite an in-depth observation. How do you fit into this?”

Johnston stood and stretched, arms overhead, hands clinched. Thanks to the elevated rows, he towered above me like an NBA center.

“His father was the realtor stabbed to death in that vacant house late in November. Remember, about three months ago? Well-respected guy. Successful. Been in the business for years.”

“Sure, who could forget that. It was all over the papers for days. Wasn’t it the old Swede Settlement Road, down on the Skagit Flats? You ever find out who did it? The last I heard . . .”

“ . . . Is that we haven’t got squat? Yeah, well that’s still the case. Might be the least amount of evidence of any major crime I’ve been around. Thought we may have had a line on a drifter from down in California, but he had a solid alibi. “

“So, what do you think Trent knows?” I said.

“The kid hasn’t said much since. Rarely talks to anybody, even this mom. He’s an only child. Certainly got no other men in his life . . . You’re the kind of guy who can get a youngster like that to open up.”

I smirked and shook my head. “You do remember my degree is in English Literature, not grief counseling.”

A sharp whistle summoned the players to center court. Hands on hips, they hovered around their coach in a semicircle, eagerly awaiting the next drill. Elmo Service stood with his back to his coach, swayed from side to side and stared up at the surprise intruders.

“I’ve seen you work with kids for years. And I know you’ve solved a lot of classroom stuff because you know how kids operate. I just thought maybe if he made this select team, he’d get close enough to somebody to give up something.”

“Geez, Harvey! Do you want me to coach him or interrogate him? If he makes the team, and that’s a big if, do you think he’s just going to bare his soul just because he’s an all-star basketball player? I mean, all of a sudden he’s an elite selection, so, therefore, he’s bound to tell all? Besides, there’s a ton of talent out there and I’ve caught hell already from a handful coaches and parents for not even giving their kids a look.”

“I’m not exactly sure what I’m asking you to do. We’re nowhere with this case and it’s been months. I do know that my detectives recently went back through all the evidence, statements and alibis. At least one of them thinks the kid had the motive to go into that house and stab his dad to death. He says he was at home watching hoop on TV but nobody can confirm it. Mom was on the way to some church function.”

I glared at him, stunned.

“So, one day your guys decide to charge the kid with this unspeakable crime. And maybe, if I’m lucky, the cops come in to my practice, cuff the guy and take him away in front of the rest of the kids!”

“That’s not what I . . .”

“Think about what you are asking Harvey!”

My outburst drew inquiring glances from the court below. Embarrassed, I continued in a lower, slower voice.

“Why don’t you figure out what you’re going to do with Trent Wheeler and leave me – and basketball – out of it?”

Choose a suspected killer? For my team?

Still steamed, I descended the back stairwell, trying to step a few steps ahead of Harvey.

“Hey, look,” Harvey said. “You know how to ask the right questions at the right times with these guys. In fact, I’ve even had to slow you down on a couple of cases you helped me with in the past. Remember?”

He quickened his pace to remain at my side. As we turned down the hallway, the Port Edwards coach strode towards us with Elmo Service bobbing and weaving closely behind.

“Ernie!” the coach called out. “Thought you might call before you came.” He whirled his notepad toward his star. I’m sure you know Elmo Service.”

“Not formally,” I said. I introduced myself and Harvey Johnston. The youngster casually clasped our hands, like an elderly woman offering a greeting in church.

“Elmo?” Johnston said. “Just curious . . . How did you get the nickname?”

The young man stretched, arms extended far behind his back, fingers interlaced. He sniffed incredulously and looked away, as if we were the only two people in the lower forty-eight who did not.

“The ladies,” Elmo said. “See what I’m sayin’?”

His coached frowned and shook his head.

“We’re just going in to get Elmo re-tapped. Seems he tweaked an ankle just now. I hope you get to see him at full speed because I think he can really help you for that spring break tournament when our playoffs are over. Lord knows enough scouts have asked about him.”

“I guess I saw him at full speed earlier today,” I said.

“Right, I was movin’ pretty good in drills,” Elmo said. “Not sure if the guys could keep up with me.” He appeared serious.

I smiled, told the coach I would be in touch and began heading for the door. Harvey suddenly turned.

“Hey, Elmo,” Johnston called. “Ever play against Trent Wheeler over at Loyola?”

The player checked for scuffs on his slick high tops then wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.

“Got into it with that sucka in a summer league game down at Rainier Vista. As usual, I was mindin’ my own business when the dude goes all Ali on me and throws this nasty-boy punch. Both benches empty. Coaches had to break it up.”

“You two guys have a history?” I asked.

“No, man. The dude’s a hot head of the first order. Scary strong, too. Gets that crazy look in his eyes like he’s gonna rip your face off.”

 

————-

We hope you’ve enjoyed “Hovering Above a Homicide”

by Tom Kelly

the author of “Cold Crossover” now available:

(from your Kindle)
(from the web)

 

“Lifethread: Mistake” onKindle bonus by L.j. Charles

Lifethread: Mistake

by

L. j. Charles

lucie.charles@ymail.com author of “Lifethread” (from your Kindle) (from the Web)


Cast of Characters

The Fates

Children of Zeus (and either Nyx or Themis—no one knows for sure). The often disobedient sisters get away with most anything. They carry the power over life and death, and are part of the order of the universe.

 

Clotho: The Spinner and the youngest of the three Fates. She spins the thread of life from her distaff onto her spindle. Clotho is also known as the daughter of night, to indicate the darkness and obscurity of human destiny.

Her Moirai priestess: Arlie Gay

 

Lachesis: The Apportioner. She measures the thread of life allotted to each person with her measuring rod, and some say, she chooses destiny. Lachesis appears within three days of a birth to decide the child’s fate.

Her Moirai priestess: Merritt Eck

 

Atropos: The Cutter, and the oldest of the three Fates. She cuts the thread of life. She chooses the manner of each person’s death; and when their time comes, she cuts their life-thread with her shears.

Her Moirai priestess: McKenna Fin

Significant Feline

Max the Cat: A stray ginger tabby who adopted the Moirai priestesses.


 

Chapter 1

The mystical energy of the Ouranian kingdom shimmered with vibrant color and the infinite knowledge of immortality. I could hear the air breathe as stealthy wisps of power circled Clotho and clung to her body in iridescent streams of light. Being in her presence always left me scared, light-headed, and cranky.

She drifted toward me, the hem of her diaphanous gown tickling the top of my bare feet as she placed her hands on my shoulders. Sweat slid wet and slick down my back, and I bit down on the inside of my cheek to keep from backing away.

I belonged to Clotho, the Fate responsible for creating all life forms. She had created me to be her priestess and to serve as her apprentice until I earned my humanity, which wasn’t happening anywhere near fast enough.

“Arlie Gay.” Her dulcet tones carried a bite.

My spine shifted, cracked with the need to be fearless. “Yes, Clotho.”

“I require a pet.” My mouth dropped open, hung there like I was the poster child for moron of the year.

Merritt and McKenna, my sister priestesses, gasped, the sound echoing through my head. There’s nothing quite like having a telepathic link to your sister priestesses. They tend to butt in at the most inconvenient times.

“Chill, sweetie. McK and I will take you shopping for a matching collar and leash. You’ll be the perfect Fated pet.” Merritt’s voice jabbed at me bringing sarcastic mind-talk to a new level.

“Shut up, Mer.”

I trumped Merritt in Fated age—having re-lived my sixteenth year for almost three decades before the Fates created her—but she had an innate and unholy streak of bossy. McKenna and I figured she’d cultivated it for the sole purpose of annoying us, but right now, seriously bad timing.

I swallowed, searched for something brilliant to say. “A pet?” What my word choice lacked in brilliance, it made up for in perfect delivery. Casual indifference laced my tone and I kept my face as blank as a professional poker player. At least that was my intention.

“That is correct, Arlie Gay.” The heat from Clotho’s hands intensified and slammed into my head, moved through my body, and brought me to my knees. “My gift to you for creating the perfect pet will be your humanity. If you fail, I will add another one hundred years to your apprenticeship.”

A dark shudder coursed through my veins, the pain in my head exploded into tiny razor-edged shards, and I grabbed for the promised oblivion of the shadows that were eating at my awareness.

Clotho’s whim. My life. It sucked.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 2

The scent of McKenna’s herbal shampoo and the rasp of Max the Cat’s growl next to my ear told me I was home. Away from Ourania and Clotho. A sigh escaped from deep in my gut, and eased some of the pain in my head. McKenna’s hand, calloused from hours of practicing a bunch of different martial arts, rested on my forearm. Tentative. Offering support.

“You back with us?” Merritt adjusted the ice pack on my forehead. Sibling rivalry disappeared when any of us were in trouble.

“Scorched,” I whispered from somewhere in the back of my throat. “Insides feel like a graveyard of smoldering ashes.”

“What’d Clotho do to you, Arlie?” Tension laced through Merritt’s question. “McK and I have never come back from a trip to Ourania looking like we needed to check into rehab.”

I levered onto my elbow and Max the Cat nipped at my fingers. “McKenna, get that cat away from me, please. He hates me. Hates all of us, really. I don’t get why he adopted us when he could have had any family on the block.”

“Not gonna work as a distraction, Arlie.” McKenna snagged the snarling feline by his scruff and put him in his crate. “You look like a bad hangover, so I’m guessing you’re on energy overload.”

My elbow gave out and I flopped back onto the sofa. “Yeah. Clotho hit me with some kind of whammy so I can…”

“What?” Who knew two Fated priestesses could shriek in unison?

“Create a pet for her. The perfect pet.

“Say what? No, hold off on that.” Merritt stood and made for the kitchen. “I need time to process, so don’t say anything, not a word until I get back. I’m gonna make us some latte’s, heavy on the cream.”

Within minutes the scent of freshly ground coffee beans filled our apartment. Homey. Safe. The fear knotting in my abdomen eased a tiny bit. I blew out a heavy sigh. “I need some water. And a shower. And help. Lots and lots of help.”

“With?” McKenna stood over me, fingering her blade.

“The only pet I’ve known is Max, and he’s not…”

Her glare sliced off the rest of my sentence.

I tried again. “Um, Clotho will need something different from the whole man’s-best-friend routine.”

McKenna shrugged, indifference rolling off her shoulders. “That would apply to dogs, and my experience is limited to cats. Guess that leaves me out.”

Another hopeless sigh escaped from deep in my chest as I settled into the comfy softness of the sofa.

The Fates provided our living space, usually an apartment with a bedroom-slash-bath suite for each of us, and a small living, kitchen area that we shared. We moved every summer, infinitely repeating our senior year of high school in different cities until we earned our humanity. Except me. I’m the only Fated priestess who got stuck in her junior year of high school. Clotho’s attention deficit problem must have really kicked in on my creation day because it was kind of a major screw up. Anyway, our job is to follow the demons who attack kids between their seventeenth and eighteenth birthdays. Had something to do with a contractual agreement between Zeus and the Tartanian underworld, but none of us had been allowed to read the fine print, which is fine with me. Sometimes it’s better not to know.

“Get up off that couch,” Merritt said as she stormed into the living room balancing three steaming mugs of coffee, her face pinched with determination. “Drink this and tell us what in the flippin’ heck is going on. A pet? Clotho wants a pet? You’re serious?”

“Dead.” I sat up and took the coffee from her, blew across the mug, and then dipped the tip of my tongue into the creamy goodness. Merritt made yummy lattes.

McKenna cradled her mug and grinned. “Dead serious, or dead as in lifethread severed?”

“Both.” I rubbed my eyes, hoping to stop the pounding in my head. “Fates do not have pets. They’re immortal. They’re mystical. They live in Ourania.”

Mutual nods greeted my list of useless facts. The Fates are more likely to respond to a whim than to obey rules. Not that the three of us complained, because hey, even though we were emancipated minors, they paid our rent. How they do that I don’t know, but Merritt says it has something to do with spinning time and tweaking destiny. Anyway, the Fates acted like normal human parents when it came to teaching us responsibility. We had to earn money for food and bus fare, keep the apartment clean, do the grocery shopping and cooking. A pain in the backside, but there’s only so much I can create—groceries and meals not being worth the effort. Still, it wasn’t a bad gig. Until now. The perfect pet. And my humanity hanging in the balance.

“Yeah,” –Merritt spared Max a defiant frown— “but you know Clotho has always been a little…off. It can’t be that hard, right? So, maybe not anything as ordinary as a cat or dog, but what about Max. He’s no where near a normal cat.”

I controlled the overwhelming urge to flip her off with the mother of all eye rolls, but instead, carefully set my mug on a stack of books that had been piling up at the end of the sofa. We really had to do some cleaning. Later. After I’d created a special plaything for Clotho.

I couldn’t blame Mer for her obvious lack of knowledge about creating stuff. She was apprenticed to Lachesis, the Fate responsible for destiny, but even she should have known it wasn’t that simple. Nothing connected to the Fates was simple. “Yeah. Easy.”

McKenna elbowed Mer. “You know better. She can’t just come up with something ordinary, and certainly not Max. He belongs here with us. It’s gonna have to be—”

“Perfect.” I finished her sentence. “Clotho may be ditzy, but I know my Fate, and whatever I create will have to be capable of surviving in Ourania and Tartania.”

Merritt dropped to the floor, folding herself into a precise cross-legged position. “Huh?”

“Arlie is right, Mer.” McKenna sipped some of the hazelnut latte. “The Fates maintain balance in the universe, and there’s no way anything can survive living in Ourania unless they’re part Tartanian. It’s like with me and Atropos. The energy we use to sever lifethreads is infused in my blade and her scissors, and it has to be impartial. The Fates aren’t allowed to tamper with human souls, or in my case, demon…whatever…they couldn’t possibly have souls. It’s my job to fight and kill demons, not control the destination of who or what was attached to the lifethread before we sever them.”

Mer, stubborn, angled her chin toward McKenna. “Destiny doesn’t work that way.”

McKenna and I did a simultaneous shrug. There was no reasoning with Merritt. I dangled my foot over the end of the sofa. “Whatever. I still have to create the perfect pet. Owwww! Max” –I pried his teeth out of my ankle— “how’d you get out of your crate?”

I held the squirming feline by the nape of his neck. “McKenna, can you puh-leese sever this animal’s lifethread?”

“No can do. He’s not a demon.”

Light bulb moment. “Oh, yeah, He’s at least part demon, and Merritt has an excellent point. He would make a perfect pet for Clotho.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter 3

Max glared at me through eerie luminescent green eyes. I rubbed my hands along my arms trying to erase the chill crawling under my skin. Yeah. A cat would be the perfect pet for Clotho. Not Max. Much as I’d like to toss him to Ourania, it just wasn’t doable. No, I’d have to create a new life form, but Max was the perfect inspiration.

McKenna snatched him out of my hands and cuddled him against her chest. “Seriously, Arlie. He’s just a cat.”

“Uh-huh.” My mind had moved on. “A were-cat. That would be absolutely perfect.”

My normal job is to help Clotho create life forms—animals, plants, humans, demons, whatever is needed to keep Earth, the nether world of Tartania, and the other world of Ourania in balance. You name it, Clotho and I create it. Not the sex part. Fated work happens before sex. Humans, others, and maybe animals, would get really bent if we messed with their procreative activities. Plants, not so much.

First thing I needed to do: check out Max the Cat’s energy imprint to see if I could use it as a foundation to create a were-cat. I inhaled, long and deep, to find that place in my essence that held the ability to see and manipulate individual components of creative energy. And then I focused on Max.

“No, Arlie! Not Max! You know I wasn’t serious about tossing him to Clotho.” Merritt can do a serious screech, and this was one of her better efforts. She’d about exploded my eardrums.

McKenna spun around, shielding Max. “Stop it, Arlie. You can’t use our cat to experiment with creating some new…creature.

My creation color, pale orange with hints of rose pink, dissipated as I lost concentration. Didn’t matter. I had what I needed. “Not what I was doing. Seriously, people, I wouldn’t actually hurt Max, but I do need to understand how his creation pattern is different from a normal cat, and don’t even try to tell me that beast is normal because he just isn’t.”

Max squirmed out of McKenna’s arms, plopped down at my feet, and then proceeded to tidy up his posterior region.

McKenna grinned. “Guess we know his opinion.”

I gave up and headed for the shower to wash away the whole freaking mess. Turned out that was a good move. Under a misty cloud of jasmine shampoo, my brain finally kicked into gear. I’d been in high school a long time. Sure it was 1991, and I’d acclimated to a bunch of changes over the past decades, but back in my early years I’d had some teachers whose lesson plans included more about the ins and outs of ancient mythological creatures than anyone could ever want to know. Except for me. Since I was connected to Clotho, I had a more pressing interest than your average student, hence, Iknew about were-cats. And creating one would mean working with some of those ancient creative patterns. Problem was, the old patterns lost stability over time, and they were complex, hard to manipulate. Way out of my scope of expertise, but we were talking possible humanity here. The biggest of all biggies. And I could do this. I knew I could.

I shrugged into a terry robe and did a quick blow dry on my sopping wet, curly, red hair, then twisted it into a knot and anchored it with a couple of pencils. Now was not the time to be distracted by unruly hair issues. I lit a jasmine candle and placed it in the center of the bare, wooden floor between my bed and chest of drawers. It gave me a roomy ten-foot square space to work in. A slow yoga routine opened my senses to the ancient energy. As my breathing slowed and deepened, and my muscles stretched to accommodate the intensity of primordial life forms, I settled onto my knees in front of the candle. I inhaled the jasmine scented air, absorbing the delicate fragrance into my lungs and my blood. Creation is a blood ritual.

The peachy-pink shade of my working aura filled the room with a delicate haze and pushed the solidity of furniture and walls into the dark corners of my mind. No need for human reality in the creation process.

A were-cat. I closed my eyes and let my mind travel through the cobwebs of structural energy that made Max a feline. As I searched for the primary fragments of his specific energy pattern, those that existed before Clotho created the first cat, a chill started at my feet and snaked its way along my bones.

I’d never traveled this deeply into creation energy before, and the cold became painful in its intensity as I moved farther and farther from the time and space of my physical existence. My mind had to twist and bend to avoid getting caught in the sticky strands of present-day creation patterns—the blueprints of Earth’s domestic and wild cats. None of those would do. No, this creation had to be born from the beginning of time, carefully crafted from equal parts of good and evil. From the kind of energy that existed long before Earth was born.

The cold burned its way up my spine and into my chest. A sharp pain squeezed the breath from my lungs, and shards of panic clawed at my throat as I struggled for air.

“McKenna!” The scream died, quiet, caught in the fog closing in around me. Breathe. I had to breathe.I dug my fingers into my throat, the skin turning slippery under my touch, and the scent of fresh blood flooded my senses as I managed to suck in a breath.

“Merritt!” No sound. Empty mind-link. Panic slammed through me as I lost focus and tumbled into the dark abyss of creation energy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4

My heartbeats blurred and my body shuddered uncontrollably as my essence crashed into the ceiling. I gazed down on my physical body, kneeling on the floor, the peachy-pink of creation energy swirling around me. And then I held my hands in front of my face. Solid. Arms, legs, torso, everything in place. Real, hanging in the air with no grounding.

Two of me.

Dammit all to heck and back. What had I done? Where was I?

Dark edges threatened my sight, and my mind slipped into a black void. Tumbling, falling through a never ending abyss where nothing was real but the powerful scent of hot coals that burned my nose and throat.

I landed with a thump. Not hard, more like there was a dense cushion under me. I scrabbled to get my feet under me, stood, and quickly assessed my physical body. My mind was shot to hell, so no point even considering that I might be sane. I wiggled toes and fingers. All appendages accounted for. It should have been encouraging, but no. Panic skipped along my nerves and settled in my gut. I couldn’t see a thing. I spun around, checking for…something. Anything that looked normal.

Heat radiated from under my feet, and a deep hunter green mist began to seep from beneath the ground in front of me. A pulsating ball formed a few feet from my face.

And then it spoke.

In my head. What the heck?

“Why are you here?” The words scraped the inside of my skull, and left the tremor of an echo hanging in the air around me.

Who was it? What was it? I gagged, making vague, harsh sounds that tangled in my throat. Fear, or something “other,” had shut down my ability to speak. My hands closed into tight fists, and I sucked down an inhalation, the smell of ancient dust, dry and friable, twisted in my chest. Think, Arlie. You’re exactly where you need to be, so don’t panic now.

“Why are you here?” Impatient, almost painful, I could feel the words slipping through the creases and folds of my brain. Ugghh.

“Because I need your help.” The answer flowed from my mind without any effort on my part. The energy ball thingie had to be in my head, prying out answers before my brain formed the words.

“You are not skilled in the art of primordial creation patterns, and yet you have appeared here in the time before time. Dangerous. Very dangerous.”

Like I didn’t know that. Every cell in my body was in complete rebellion, but I wasn’t only a redhead in appearance. I had the tenacious persistence to back it up. An internal battle raged: give in to the panic attack threatening my sanity, or take control of…well, there wasn’t a hope in hell that I could control this situation, but I was stubborn enough to try. I gave the energy ball my best hear-me-roar glare.

“I need help.” The words came from me, but not by choice. I would have added a whole lot more attitude, and lot less hopeless female to the statement. And admit that I needed help. Nope. Not my thing. It’d be way too dangerous to give that much of my anonymity to an ancient energy being. They were capable of doing all kinds of secret stuff that could screw up my chances to become human. Forever.

“Yes. You. Do.” The green ball had a way with words, and this was not how I’d planned this backward trip through time to go. I needed to get control of my words. Like right now. I tossed my head trying to clear out whatever hold the invasive green glow had on me. One breath. Two. There they were. My thoughts. “I need the energy pattern to create a were-cat.”

“Dangerous. Very dangerous.”

“We covered that. Can you show me the archetype…please?” Maybe simple courtesy would work on…whatever this thing was.

“Yes. Follow.”

I secured the edges of the terry robe across my body and tightened the belt, made an extra knot, and then took a tentative step in the direction of the energy sphere. It moved slowly at first, but the speed increased the deeper into the past we traveled, and within seconds I was racing behind it, my feet barely touching the ground. Dirt? The surface was smooth and cool against my soles, like a steam roller had leveled it eons ago. The hot, dusty smell intensified, closed in around me, and then I stumbled, landed on my hands and knees. My fingers slid into the packed surface of the ground. No barrier. Like slipping through air. Coils of energy moved into my hands, curled around my wrists and clung.

“This is what you seek. What you will regret.” The words, barely a whisper of sound, slithered through my head, and left an aching chasm of emptiness in their wake.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

My desperate attempt to inhale failed. Wisps of air clogged in my lungs and forced out a raspy cough that shuddered through my body. Jasmine scented the air, lush and heavy, and conscious thought began to replace my screwed up nerves and scattered awareness. My eyes fluttered open giving the wood floor a butterfly kiss. Home. My bedroom. Someone pounding on the door with the force of an earth mover.

Had to be McKenna.

The hollow door cracked, splintered into pieces. McK packed a solid roundhouse kick. She stood over me, hands fisted on her hips. “What were you thinking?” Her righteous anger ripped at my fragile link with sanity.

“There’s blood.” Merritt bent over me and shifted the collar of the robe away from my neck. “Looks like only one of the scratches is deep enough to need stitches. I’ll get a washcloth and a tube of antiseptic. Can you get her into some clothes?”

“What have you done, Arlie?” McKenna tugged the pencils out of my hair, and wound the loose strands into a knot at the back of my neck. “There’s something…skewed about your energy, and I can’t feel you through our mind-link.”

I rolled, stretched my arms and legs as I scanned the ceiling. No “other” Arlie floated above me. Relief bubbled in my belly. It was going to be okay.

McKenna leaned over me and blew out the candle. “Talk to me. Where did you go?”

“To the source of creation.” Was that my voice, all wobbly and distant?

“Not a good move. Your neck…”

I pushed on to my hands and knees, waited until the room stopped spinning, and to give me time to get acquainted with the new aches that had settled in my muscles, and then I stood and faced the mirror over my dresser.

“Coward. Your eyes are closed, and you aren’t dressed yet. We need to get you to urgent care.” Merritt lifted my chin with the tip of her finger and my eyes snapped open.

I focused on my image in the mirror. The smattering of freckles that no amount of make up could hide stood out against fear-white skin; and the silver that usually sparkled in my grey eyes had turned pewter dull. “Oh, spiffle.”

Merritt gave me a point-made nod, then went back to dabbing a cold washcloth against the scratches on my neck. Blood still trickled from the deepest cut, but it probably didn’t need a stitch. Moirai priestesses healed quickly.

“Give me that.” I plucked the washcloth from her hand and applied pressure to the wound. “No stitches. A bandaid will be fine, and the good news—I got what I needed to create a were-cat.”

What I didn’t mention? The fibers of the ancient creation pattern were tightening around my wrists, and I had to get my sisters out of here so I could use the energy before it sliced through my skin. “Go, both of you. Give me a minute to wash up, then we can chat about the state of my health.”

Merritt shrugged and backed out of my bedroom. “Meet you downstairs in five.”

McKenna held my gaze, her dark mahogany eyes glowing with angry sparks. “You’re in trouble, Arlie. And don’t think I missed the swelling in your hands. Five minutes. Then I’m coming up to get you.”

I opened the window and sat cross-legged on my bed, letting the cool breeze float around me, soothing, letting Earth hold the balance between Ourania and Tartania. I breathed into the essence of creation, and began to weave the primordial energy circling my wrists with a reproduction of the domestic feline energy that had been used to create Max.

The strands loosened from my wrists, took on new life as they twined and merged together. The shape began to take form. It grew to about the size of an ocelot, only with slightly longer front legs, and with paws that were more like hands, a small face, bright teal eyes that swirled with splashes of gold, dark green and…no. It couldn’t be red. Fear caught in my throat. I pushed it away. No time now. Not until the cat was fully formed and able to breathe on its own. Whiskers formed, a tail, long and twitchy, and then the coat materialized, short, silky curls the color of hay in the sunlight.

It transformed into human form almost immediately, and before I could blink, back to cat. Male. Beautiful. Thank goodness still a kitten because even at one-third my size, he was very scary.

My heart pounded in my chest. I did it. Oh, damn. I’d really created a were-cat.

He cocked his head at me. Blinked, and then caught my hands with his stubby clawed paws, uh, fingers, and licked the remainder of the energy from my wrists. Creepy. I sucked in a shaky breath, and held perfectly still as his tongue rasped over my skin. My stomach lurched, and the bitter taste of fear coated my throat.

A purr and a growl merged to form an inarticulate sound that I took to mean “hello.”

“Y-You’re a g-gift for an immortal. The Fate Clotho.” I hated the stutter. Dominance, Arlie. You have to be the dominant creature or this is going to go very badly.

The growl overwhelmed the purr, turned into a snarl. I inched away, sliding off the bed and onto my feet. I needed to be bigger than the cat. Like. Now. It took less than a minute to create a collar and leash and fasten them around his neck.

Merritt and McKenna burst into my room, Merritt’s mouth going at top speed. “What the—”

“Stay.” I held up my hand. The were-cat crouched next to me, hind legs tense, ready to spring. He’s not stable yet.” Might never be, but no need to mention that.

They shuffled back a few steps, and McKenna held up Max the Cat’s empty crate in one hand, her blade in the other . “What did you do to Max?”

“Huh?” I shook my head. “Nothing. There’s none of Max in this creature, only a replica.”

“Oh, yes there is. Mer was making coffee, as usual, and we were discussing whether to, um, nag you into getting a couple of stitches, and Max disappeared, evaporated, right out of his crate.”

Horror burned under my skin. “Damn. Can’t be. No possible flippin’ way.”

McKenna tightened her grip on the blade, eyes focused on the were-cat.

Merritt gasped, panic tightening her lips and chasing the color from her face. “You need to get that creature to Clotho right now.”

He was morphing back and forth between what looked like human and cat, but still couldn’t hold the human-like form for longer than a second or two. Not long enough for us to get a good look at him. “Yeah, you have a definite point.” I offered the leash to McKenna. “I’ll just—”

“Take the beast with you.” She’d moved behind a chair, held Max’s crate in front of her chest with one hand, and fingered her blade with the other. “Wash your hands ‘cause you’re covered with…something, and put on a dress. Clotho promised you humanity if you created a pet for her, and it’d be bad form to offend her by showing up in your robe.”

“We should go to Ourania with her.” Merritt’s voice wavered.

McKenna’s mouth dropped open. “You’re kidding, right? I get that this is a big thing, I mean really, really big, but I’m not dissipating into pure energy with” –she pointed at the were-cat with the tip of her blade— “that kind of energy free-floating in the same space. Nope. Not gonna happen.”

I grabbed a dress from my closet and hustled into the bathroom, were-cat in tow. He didn’t fight me, but only because he apparently was desperate for a drink. He’d turned on the tap in the bathtub with those odd hand-like paws and started sucking down water. A shudder slithered down my spine. I had to get him to Clotho before he got hungry.

I slipped the leash over my arm and scrubbed my hands in the sink, splashed water on my face, secured my hair in knot on top of my head, and put a bandage over the cut on my throat. It had stopped bleeding, thank goodness.

I’d been waiting for this moment for sixty years, and I wanted to look, well, professional. Dignified. I started to shrug out of my robe, eyed the were-cat in the mirror over the sink. Thankfully, he was still focused on sucking up water. It would be more than creepy to have him ogle me in my underwear.

I stepped into my favorite azure blue dress and fumbled into it under cover of my robe, and then met his hungry gaze in the reflection of the mirror. The were-cat had morphed into human-like form, his feral eyes following my every move. Damn.

I casually clasped a strand of pearls around my neck, no easy task considering the way my fingers were shaking, and then turned to shut off the water in the bathtub. He was back in cat form. Relief left me slightly dizzy. “Time to go. You can have as much food and water as you need in Ourania.”

He snarled, showing off a mouthful of sharp, white teeth, but followed leash-distance behind me into the bedroom.

Merritt reached her arms in my direction to give me a fleeting hug, but stayed as far from the were-cat as possible. “Go. Get your humanity. We’ll see you—”

“Maybe not. I don’t know exactly how it works because no priestess has achieved humanity while I’ve been an apprentice. The only thing I know for sure is that our mind-link will be blocked as soon as I arrive in Ourania.”

McKenna leaned in for a hug. “Be happy, and if you can, come and visit.”

Emotion clogged my throat, and I brushed at the tears on my cheeks. “Love you guys.”

And before my next breath I was in Ourania facing Clotho.

She smiled, secretive, as she reached for the were-cat’s leash. “Arlie Gay you have fulfilled your duty as a Moirai priestess. A cat. How appropriate. Kneel.”

This was it. I hated that McKenna and Merritt weren’t here, but maybe I could visit with them soon and we could celebrate, and welcome whomever Clotho created to be her new apprentice.

A rush of adrenaline sent tremors of happiness through my body when Clotho raised her arms and called to the energy of Ourania. Humanity was but a breath away. She stepped in front of me and placed her hands on my shoulders. “I hereby release you from your Fated apprenticeship—”

An enraged shriek slammed through the air followed by a cacophony of harsh sneezes.

“Wh—” A gust of wind whipped the words from my mouth, and a wild storm lashed around us, burning, slashing, tearing at my skin and the thin cotton of my dress. I slapped my hands over my face, a futile attempt to protect myself from the assault. The wind tore at my fingers jerking them away from my face. Strands of hair sliced across my cheeks and arms leaving stinging welts behind.

Darkness swirled, heavy with murderous intent, and I folded into a ball. A ridiculous attempt to protect myself.

Clotho’s laughter merged with a badass rumble from deep within Ourania.

Thunder shook the air and the ground heaved with anger. What in the flippin’ hell?

Dark clouds of emotion spun in tornado-like funnels, and ripped at the inherent peace of Ourania. Pressure built, crushing me against the ground, and his voice thundered inside my skull. “A cat! How dare you!”

Zeus in full temper tantrum. Holy crap. What had I done?

Another rumble shook the ground of Ourania and I saw my future in a double flash of lightning.

Not human.

Not a Moirai priestess.

Not anything.

Trapped in Tartania for eternity.

——-

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——-

The characters and events portrayed in this story are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

 

Lifethread: Mistake

Copyright © 2011 by Lucie J. Charles

Cover Design by Lucie Charles

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without written permission.

 

For more information: lucie.charles@ymail.com author of “Lifethread” (Kindle) (Web)