applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] warrior girl)
When the silk merchant's daughter was chosen as the annual dragon sacrifice, everyone in town breathed a secret sigh of relief. Sure, she was nice to look at - more than nice, to hear it told (furtively, and only when the tellers were positive that she wasn't around) - but absolutely, painfully problematic in every other conceivable way. Polite citizens might purse their lips and call her things like "feisty" and "challenging," but just about everyone else had a wide array of far more colorful language for her.

In the end, polite or not, everyone was pretty grateful that she had been the one chosen to die, rather than any of the other possible candidates - all of whom were lovely (if not quite as lovely as she) and infinitely easier to deal with.

The merchant's daughter, to her credit, bore up remarkably well when her name was selected. She simply nodded, her regal, fine-featured face a mask of cool aplomb. This was disappointing to more than one of the townspeople at the Lottery; many had hoped to see her tough facade finally fall, revealing the vulnerable creature underneath. The other candidates, though - the nine most beautiful maidens in the town of Verdelon, apart from the silk merchant's daughter - couldn't hide their exhilaration. Each of them, in her heart of hearts, would have been terribly offended if the merchant's daughter was allowed to live while she was forced to die.

The merchant's daughter just didn't have it in her to be a lady, that was the problem. The Head Councilwoman was very particular about ladylike qualities, and her say was final in Verdelon - for everyone but the silk merchant's daughter, it seemed. While the other women of Verdelon took femininity to soaring heights, the merchant's daughter insisted on swearing, fighting, and insulting any man who so much as let his eyes linger on her shapely form. It was humiliating, and not at all the way that proper girls were raised.

When she turned sixteen, everyone was hoping that she would be the one chosen as the dragon sacrifice - not only to save the other beautiful young women, all of whom were appropriately humble, submissive, and sweet, but also because most people were all too ready to be shot of her. Even her own father, it was suspected, would be glad to see her go. She embarrassed every man she came across with her defiant ways, but it was certain that her father suffered this more than anyone else. Nobody would ever have the guts to actually marry her, and so her father would have bear the shame of her until he died - unless fate intervened.

Dragon sacrifice had been the way of life in Verdelon for years and years, ever since the first settlers had come to the green hills above the Old City. They were enchanted by the place, which was lush with plant life and teeming with game, and immediately began to build there. Unfortunately, it transpired that the ruins of the City were inhabited by a dragon, a cruel and ancient beast whose fury could only be sated by firm young flesh (preferably that of a beautiful young maiden). In the early days, the dragon raided the settlement continually, and the people feared that they would have to leave their new home.

It was the Head Councilwoman at the time that came up with the idea. She approached the dragon, docile as a lamb and appropriately humble, and made him a deal. If he promised to stop raiding the settlement, every year the people would choose from the ten most beautiful maidens of marrying age and send him a sacrifice. This way he needn't worry about wiping out his favorite food, and the people of the settlement could live in relative peace. The dragon, who could hunt well enough to live comfortably off the animals that now roamed the ruins in droves (but loved the taste of pretty young maidens more than anything else), agreed. He was not a particularly bright dragon, but he was very terrifying, so the Head Councilwoman didn't push her luck by asking for more. The people called the place Verdelon, and began to make it home.

So it happened that every year on the first of spring, the ten most beautiful maidens between the ages of sixteen and twenty were placed in a Lottery. Their names were written on scraps of paper and swirled around in a magnificent blown-glass bowl. The Head Councilwoman would dip her fingers into the bowl and pull out the name of the woman who was fated to die. This was usually a very tragic affair, because nobody really wanted to see a beautiful woman gobbled up by a vicious dragon, but that was how things had to be. The sacrifices never fought their fate - they hadn't been raised to question such things. They were ladies to the very end, gracious and modest and absolutely delicious.

After the sacrifice was chosen, she was outfitted in a gorgeous gown and sent down into the ruins. The people of Verdelon stood at the edge of the hills and watched her, glittering in the sunlight, as she made her way to her doom. They waved for hours and sang songs for her, so that her last memories of home would be good ones. For awhile after, they would tell complimentary stories about her and comfort her family, but soon enough she would be forgotten. All of the sacrifices seemed to blur together, really - sweet, modest girls as they were. Achingly beautiful, of course, but not particularly memorable apart from that.

Until the silk merchant's daughter, of course. She seemed determined to break the rules up to the very moment of her death. For one thing, she refused to wear a gown. Instead she demanded a tunic and a pair of trousers - trousers, on a woman! It would have been laughable, if the merchant's daughter had not been so terrifying. As it was, she dealt the tailor a clout so powerful that eventually he agreed to make her the trousers, if only to keep her from beating him to death.

"What does it matter, anyway?" he complained bitterly to the Head Councilwoman, when she called him out on this break of protocol. "She'll be dead in a few days. Let her wear the damned pants. She'll stick me with my own pins if I try to put her in a dress, she said so herself!" And everyone knew it was true.

She also demanded to be given a weapon. This really took the people aback. No sacrifice had ever asked for a weapon, They were meant to go peacefully and nobly to their deaths - not to fight back! But again, it was allowed. "Oh, let her take a weapon," the Head Councilwoman said dismissively, twisting the heavy gold rings on her fingers. "The dragon will snap her up in one bite. She'll never get a chance to use it." And so it was that the merchant's daughter was given a small silver blade.

When it came time to send the merchant's daughter into the city, the people gathered as usual to watch her walk to her death. Unlike past sacrifices, however, she didn't weep or hug her family and friends goodbye. Instead she stared at everyone in turn, her blue eyes flashing and imperious. "I'll be back," she said, and started off down the hill without a backward glance.

The people laughed nervously. A few tried to joke about what the merchant's daughter had said, but they were half-hearted attempts and not very funny. Nobody waved at her. Nobody even watched her enter the City. They hurried back to their houses, locked the doors, and shuttered the windows, sure that the merchant's daughter's disrespectful attitude would bring the dragon's fury down upon them all.

The silk merchant's daughter never did turn back to look at the hills. She knew nobody would be there - she wasn't stupid. She knew all too well what the people of Verdelon thought of her. She didn't give a damn. They were useless people, locked into a moronic deal with a dusty old monster and insistent on never changing - never progressing - at all. Just because she didn't consider it a wonderful compliment when a boy pinched her on the ass, just because she didn't like to flounce around like a princess in a fairytale, just because she didn't follow the rules set down by that awful, condescending old High Councilwoman, everyone hated her. Well, all right then, she could deal with that.

As she drew close to the City, she couldn't help but stare in awe. Nobody ever came down here apart from the yearly sacrifice, so she had never gotten a close look at the Old City. It was centuries old and falling apart, of course, but still there were enormous towers of metal and glass that spiraled up into the afternoon sky, so high she imagined that they skimmed the clouds. Strange and fabulous objects littered the streets. She would have liked to keep looking, to explore the place for hours, but the sun was beginning to set and the dragon would come for her soon. She pulled her small silver knife and waited for him on a wide boulevard, a cool breeze trailing her red hair behind her like a banner.

She didn't have to wait long. The dragon emerged from between two of the broken buildings, his scales glimmering like jewels in the warm glow of the sun.

"Hello, pretty one," he said in a deep and terrible voice.

"Hello, dragon," she replied.

"You are the most beautiful sacrifice I have had in a very long time," he said, his curved golden claws scraping on the ground as he came closer toward her. He licked his lips with a long, pointed red tongue. "I used to be a man, you know. A long time ago, people changed me into something else. If I was still a man, I would take you right now."

Rude, the merchant's daughter thought irritably. "What an inappropriate thing to say to me," she said.

The dragon laughed. "I'm going to eat you up, pretty one. Why does it matter?"

"Men are all the same," she said despairingly, "even when they're not men anymore."

"True enough," the dragon agreed. "What's that in your hand there?"

"This?" The merchant's daughter waved the little silver knife so that it caught the orange-pink rays of the setting sun. "This is a present for you."

"A present?" The dragon had to think about this for awhile. "Nobody's ever brought me a present before."

"You'll soon see I'm different from the others," the merchant's daughter promised. "Now come here so I can give you your present."

"I like you, pretty one," the dragon said, silently deciding to tell the High Councilwoman that all the sacrifices should bring him presents from here on out. He couldn't really see what the girl had - it was very small - but it glinted and sparkled most fetchingly. The dragon liked things that sparkled. "All right. I am going to get my present, and then I am going to eat you."

The dragon slithered closer and closer, and the merchant's daughter tightened her grip on the silver knife. The dragon came so close that his great green eye was only inches from her. "So what did you bring me?" He asked eagerly.

The merchant's daughter threw the knife. It pierced the dragon right through the middle of his eye, shattering the green mirror of his gaze. The dragon shrieked and raged and writhed, banging his scaly body against the ground.

"You bitch!" he screamed, pawing at the blade in his eye. "You've blinded it!"

But the merchant's daughter was already running, running to retrieve the knife from where it had fallen. The dragon's giant feet battered the ground around her, but she dodged them easily in her comfortable trousers. She scooped up the knife and dashed back out in front of the dragon's awful mouth.

"I'm going to tear you apart!" the dragon shrieked at her. He opened his mouth - wide enough that she could walk right into it. His curved white teeth shone with gobbets of saliva. The merchant's daughter flung her knife into the wet crimson maw with all her strength.

The dragon gagged. The knife had buried itself in the back of his throat. He tried to shake it free, but only succeeded in tearing a large gash in his soft esophagus. He retched and coughed, but it was no good. The knife just kept slipping down his throat, slicing and nicking him every moment. It was tearing him up from the inside out.

"You've done it now," the dragon said weakly, showering the merchant's daughter in a spray of dark blood. "I'm going to eat up your whole town for this."

"We'll see," the merchant's daughter said with a smirk, and she left him there to die.

---

When the High Councilwoman's servant came to fetch the blown-glass bowl from the town square, he had a definite spring in his step. It had been hours since the merchant's daughter had headed off down the hill and night was beginning to fall. She must have been eaten up by now, and so much the better for him. He still remembered with horror how she had reacted to his suggestion, just a few weeks ago, that the two of them go off somewhere so he could teach her what it meant to be a real woman. In fact, he could still feel the echo of her kick in his nether regions.

Well, now she was dead and gone and nobody would ever know how she'd embarrassed him. In a fit of lightheartedness, he tossed the bowl from hand to hand, the slips of paper fluttering like butterflies inside it. Unfortunately, the servant had never been great shakes at sports, and on his second toss the bowl slipped from his fingers and shattered on the ground. He groaned with horror, thinking of the impending lecture he would get from the High Councilwoman.

Reaching down to collect the shards, he noticed something strange. The writing on two of the slips of paper looked oddly similar. With growing unease, he collected all the Lottery slips and turned them over in his hands. Each, in the clear, bold handwriting of the silk merchant's daughter, bore exactly the same name.





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This week was yet another intersection challenge, and this time my partner is [livejournal.com profile] pixie117, which I'm super excited about. She's a brilliant writer and a great competitor, so it's nice to have her on my team this week :) Her entry (which is awesome and goes along with this piece) is HERE. Read and vote for us this week, if you have it in your hearts - our vote totals will be combined, so we'll either be IN or OUT together. And I'll be honest, I'm not ready to say Auf Wiedersehen just yet!
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([art] sultry)
We realized right off that the girl was going to be a hard nut to crack. Usually it's easy - slap 'em around a little bit and they'll tell you anything you want to know. Knocks them out of the shock. Usually it doesn't take more than once, just one little pop on the cheek, and they're moaning and clutching their faces and pouring the whole sad story out at your feet.

But this girl was different, right from the start. For one thing, she was as hard and lean as any of the Army guys, all muscle and bone. And she didn't look down at her feet like the other detainees always do. She stared us right in the face, with her jaw set and her hands resting at her sides, like she was going to pull a knife any second. It was a little freaky, I don't mind telling you, even though we'd checked her for weapons before bringing her in (and you know how Raimey is - he probably checked her three or four times, jerking himself off the whole time). She didn't answer any questions, either, just glared at us with those crazy gray eyes of hers. When the lights hit them it was like there wasn't any color there at all, just white on white with a little black dot in the middle, stuck right on you. I can still see them, just like she's here in front of me, sitting where you are.

Well, the Cap got sick of the button-lips routine, and gave us the go ahead for a little rough stuff. It was mostly Porter that did it - he likes that kind of thing, but he doesn't do it too hard (like some of the other guys, who'd have her spitting teeth). Still, I did her a bit myself, just a couple of smacks. Let me tell you, she wasn't like any other woman I've ever done it to. She didn't make any noise, no noise at all, and she'd just ratchet her head around to face front again every time you popped her one. It was freaky, like I said, especially with the blood and all.

I still can't believe she offed those guys. Four guys! Army, too. And her only about five foot three. They found the whole pile of them out at Supply Depot 6, and her just sitting there, covered in blood, calm as you please. Like she was waiting to catch a bus or something. They'd been beaten to death, looked like, but I can't figure how she did it on all her own. I don't know how anybody could take out four Army without any weapons.

Cap figures she's got an accomplice somewhere, one of those asshole fringe types always making racket about the End of the World. That's why we did the rough stuff, to figure out where this other whackjob was so we could take him out. Usually those weirdo types are pretty peaceful - annoying as fuck, but it's not like they're gonna swing at you - but sometimes the real crazy ones can get violent. Something about being so close to the Brains just sets some people off. That's what the Cap thinks happened; one of those weirdos got too close to the Brains, and they set him off on the crazy stuff. He got the girl roped into it (you know how those conspiracy cult guys are, all those women around), and wham bam, four dead guys.

But let me tell you something, I don't think there is an accomplice. Something about the way that girl looked at me, I think she did it herself.

At first I thought that she might be one of them, the Brains. Army says they've got them all locked up, snug as a bug in those bunkers, but I don't see why one of them couldn't have flown under the radar. I'm thinking that the girl is a Brain, and she told those guys to beat each other to death, sweet as you please, in that voice they use. Remember that? In training? I can still remember what that Brain said to me, right inside my head - "Jump, Walter. Jump. Jump." And I did it, too, jumped clean off the rail of that catwalk. I was only lucky that it wasn't that high.

We all did what they said, didn't we? You did it, too, I can tell by your face. That was the point of the training, Cap said, to show us what we were up against if they should ever get loose. We can't fight them, not with what they can do. And the Army says they've got it under control, but those fuckers are something serious. I don't see how they can think that guns and a bunker could keep them out. If the Army can't stop them, what are we supposed to do? No little militia outfit is going to stop those things.

That's why we're all here, because of them. They started popping up out of nowhere, messing with people's heads, and the whole world went to shit. People blowing themselves up, blowing each other up, blowing whole countries up! And the Army just can't let it go, thinks those things can be fixed to work for us. Rewired to tell all the terrorists to shove grenades up their asses and we'll be in the clear - the ol' US of A, on top again. Well, I don't think so. If you ask me, all the Brains should be exterminated. Just wiped out, every last one. I remember what that thing sounded like, inside my head. I'll never forget it as long as I live.

Why are you looking at me like that, anyway? You know what I'm saying is true. I had a life before those things showed up, a real life. I was a banker, just a regular Joe, and it was great. It was fucking great and I didn't even see it. One day there I was, going to work and drinking lattes and eating McDonald's and the whole bit, and the next there are the headlines about these psychic motherfuckers getting into people's heads and making them do stuff - crazy stuff. People dying all over the place, suicides and shootings and bombings and who knows what else.

Now we're all stuck here, what's left of us, in these shitty Army compounds, doing whatever shitty jobs they assign us. Fucking militia! I'd never fired a gun in my life until I got here. All because of those fucking Brains! It drives me crazy! Sometimes I don't know what I'm even doing anymore. I just feel like I'm going nuts.

I'll tell you what I'd like to do that girl, I'd like to kill her myself. I can even see how I'd do it. I'd put my hands around her neck first, and then I'd shake her, I'd shake her so hard her teeth would rattle together, and then I'd throw her down on the floor and hit her, again and again. I'd beat her like those guys were beat, until the blood spewed out of her. All over the floor and all over me and all over everything! And I'd just keep on hitting her, even when she'd gone all limp and soft, because of what she did - what they all did! Fuck her, fuck the Brains, fuck it all!



Hey... hey, man... what are you doing? What are you doing down there? You all right, man? What the fuck... are you okay?

Oh, God. Oh, God, what did I do?





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This week's Idol prompt contained an intersection challenge! This round, all of the remaining contestants will be working with a partner. My partner is [livejournal.com profile] supremegoddess1, who wrote a companion piece to this one. Her entry is HERE, and it is absolutely amazing. Our vote totals will be tallied together this week, so do read and give us any love you can spare :)
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] messy updo)
Exhibit X: The First American Werewolf in Captivity!

She could see the sign over the tops of the trees, emblazoned in red letters that looked like dripping blood. Beneath the words, her face. It wasn’t a face she recognized, but it was hers all the same. She felt it inside her, twitching under the muscles in her cheeks and lips and jaws.

The enclosure was circular and open, like an amphitheater, ringed on three quarters of its circumference by a thick wall of transparent plastic. It was made up to look like a piney woods, all mossy boulders and little gullies and bristly, transplanted trees that struggled to live in the foreign soil. And there were the faces, always the faces, shimmering like phantasms against the plastic barrier, staring at her wherever she turned.

Her name was Hazel, though nobody called her that anymore. The name emblazoned on the plaque in front of her enclosure was Lupe, though most people didn’t call her that, either. She was the freak, the monster, the wolf girl, nothing more. She had been in the zoo for two years.

Every day she was awakened at seven o’ clock, an hour before the zoo opened. They used a cattle prod to shove her out of the back of the enclosure, where she slept in a plain, dark room on dirty blankets. They fed her - mostly raw beef and things that she couldn’t even name, animal parts, pink and shining in the pale morning light. She refused to eat these, though she had learned to choke down the beef. Sometimes she thought about refusing it all until she shriveled up and disappeared, but she knew they’d never let her die. They’d shove tubes down her throat and force her if she didn’t do it herself. She was the star attraction, after all.

In the beginning she had tried to talk to them. She tried to tell them that this was wrong, that she was human, at least most of the time. Some of them had even talked back at first. Then, slowly, the talk dried up. Their eyes changed. She wasn’t Hazel anymore, or even Lupe. She was just another animal, dangerous and dirty and stupid. Her own voice dwindled and died away until it was little more than a whisper.

Sometimes she tried to talk to the people who came to see her, too, though she knew they couldn’t hear her through the plastic. She found the ones with pity in their eyes and whispered, “Help me, please,” her slim brown fingers pressed against the barrier like a prayer. But they only lowered their eyes and walked away, and the rest crowded in with their cameras and hungry smiles while a zoo employee crowed over the noise, “It’s your lucky day, folks! Lupe is usually shy – she must see something she likes out there! I’d keep your daughter close, ma’am, she might smell like lunch!”

She still combed her hair with her fingers, though it was filthy and thick with grease, and washed herself with her drinking water every night. It seemed futile, but she couldn’t stop. She couldn’t give up what little was left to her of Hazel, who had once been a pretty girl. She still felt like Hazel, in some deep quiet part of her mind, though the other thing was there, too, snarling around in the darkness like a half-remembered nightmare.

When spring began to melt into summer, she realized that she was nearly nineteen years old. If she thought about it hard enough, she could still imagine a white frosted cake crowned with a tiara of flame, the kind she’d had before the thing happened and she had changed. Her mother had always baked Hazel’s birthday cake herself. “They never get the icing right,” she said of supermarket bakeries.

Hazel hadn’t seen her mother in three years, since she had signed her over like an unwanted pet. The memory still burned in her gut like acid.

In the third week of May, men began erecting high metal bleachers around the enclosure. She knew, then, that the full moon wasn’t far away. She could already feel it humming through her nerves, at the roots of her teeth.

The zoo celebrated the full moon each month by opening the gates after sunset. At moonrise, a crowd gathered around her like shadows, mounting the bleachers eagerly in search of the best seat. Stadium lighting slammed on around her, moths swirling through the fluorescent beams like spinning constellations, and she began to change. It was always painful, the creak and snap of bone, the tearing skin, the sudden stretch of tendon and muscle. But worst of all was the shame, hot and thick like the saliva that filled her mouth, like the scent of blood in her nose.

When she changed she wasn’t Hazel. She wasn’t anybody. She didn’t remember, afterward, only dreamed of it, and the dreams left her shattered and shaking. She buried the bones with tears in her eyes, the shreds and shards of animals they released into the enclosure with her when she was not herself. In her dreams, she heard the delightful squealing of the crowd, felt the juicy burst of flesh under her teeth.

When she saw the men building the bleachers, her stomach twisted. She couldn’t bear the thought of being their monster again, of killing and running and snarling and howling for them. She retreated behind the trees and ignored the sounds of disappointment from the faces behind the glass. The part of her that was still Hazel whispered her plans, but nobody was listening.

The next morning, she awoke before the cattle prod entered her pen. She lay in the cool darkness, tingling from her fingertips to her toes, and waited. It wouldn’t be long.

At seven o’ clock, a small panel opened at the back of the room. A muscle twitched in her flank as she watched. The prod slid inside, and behind it she could see the face of the man that held it. He peered into the gloom, trying to find her with his weak, watery eyes.

The movement flowed through her like liquid silver. She sprang to her feet and reached out suddenly, her fingers closing on the plastic shaft of the prod, behind the crackling end. The man did not expect this; she had always been docile, sluggish and cringing. She jerked him forward, the muscles in her arm contracting. She heard the soft clunk of his head hitting the exterior wall, and felt the sudden slackening of the prod. Flinging it away, she dashed at the panel. It was small but so was she, half-starved as she was. Her hips banged against the rough stone as she came through, but she didn’t feel anything but the man’s skin under her hands. Her teeth closed on his throat before he could scream, and she tore it out with a single jerk of her head. Blood gushed into her mouth, and just for a moment she savored it, before the part of her that was Hazel flooded back and pushed the body away.

She stripped the corpse and zipped the jumpsuit around herself. It was far too big, puddling around her wrists and ankles, and there was a wet bloodstain at the shoulder, but it would have to do for now. The man she shoved into her pen, twisting and breaking the body to make it fit. She couldn’t do anything about the blood on the floor but hope that it would be a few minutes before anyone found it.

The narrow corridor behind her pen opened up on the far side of the tiger enclosure. She was at the very heart of the zoo, surrounded by winding paths and habitats and cages. Her nostrils flared. She smelled the zoo employees moving around her, the animals, the grease from the food carts. The part of her that was not Hazel could see it all like a map, laid out in a pattern of heat and scent.

It was easy enough to avoid the zoo employees at first, though the blood on the jumpsuit unsettled the animals. She spotted an abandoned merchandise cart in front of the reptile house and stole a t-shirt and a pair of running shorts, undressing right there to pull them on. As she left the cart, an alarm began to shriek – they had noticed she was missing. Her loping run carried her over the dirt paths so fast she barely felt the ground under her feet. She could sense people running around her, toward her, and heard their frantic shouting. The animals growled and whickered and whined.

The perimeter wall loomed in front of her, but it was decorative and low. She almost laughed as she vaulted over it. She landed in a crouch on the other side. Behind the wall, she could still hear the faint shouts of zoo employees. They didn’t realize she was outside. They didn’t realize she was free. She began to run again, her stride eating up the sparse grass. She didn’t look back.


“The popular Exhibit X attraction at the Westport Zoo closed last Friday, after the escape of ‘Lupe,’ the first American werewolf in captivity,” a television chattered over the counter. “Authorities are currently searching the surrounding areas for the werewolf, but have no comment as to the whereabouts of this dangerous beast. The full moon rose last night…” A photograph flashed onto the screen – a crouching girl with filthy, matted hair and flashing eyes. She was clothed in only strips of blanket.

“Scary, ain’t it?” The man behind the counter shook his head. “Hope they catch the damn thing.” He turned toward the girl with the shining blonde hair, who was perched across from him on a red vinyl stool. She wore a floaty summer dress that was just a little too big for her and speckled with small flecks of mud. He thought she must be a gardener, what with the mud and the tan. Her thick-lashed brown eyes were fixed on the television. “So what’ll it be, hon?”

“The breakfast platter, please,” she whispered, barely audible over the television. “Extra sausage and bacon.”

“Speak up, hon,” he chuckled, silently deciding to add a couple of pancakes to the girl’s plate, on the house. She looked a bit underfed. “Pretty girl like you shouldn’t ought to be shy.”
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] messy updo)
Exhibit X: The First American Werewolf in Captivity!

She could see the sign over the tops of the trees, emblazoned in red letters that looked like dripping blood. Beneath the words, her face. It wasn’t a face she recognized, but it was hers all the same. She felt it inside her, twitching under the muscles in her cheeks and lips and jaws.

The enclosure was circular and open, like an amphitheater, ringed on three quarters of its circumference by a thick wall of transparent plastic. It was made up to look like a piney woods, all mossy boulders and little gullies and bristly, transplanted trees that struggled to live in the foreign soil. And there were the faces, always the faces, shimmering like phantasms against the plastic barrier, staring at her wherever she turned.

Her name was Hazel, though nobody called her that anymore. The name emblazoned on the plaque in front of her enclosure was Lupe, though most people didn’t call her that, either. She was the freak, the monster, the wolf girl, nothing more. She had been in the zoo for two years.

Every day she was awakened at seven o’ clock, an hour before the zoo opened. They used a cattle prod to shove her out of the back of the enclosure, where she slept in a plain, dark room on dirty blankets. They fed her - mostly raw beef and things that she couldn’t even name, animal parts, pink and shining in the pale morning light. She refused to eat these, though she had learned to choke down the beef. Sometimes she thought about refusing it all until she shriveled up and disappeared, but she knew they’d never let her die. They’d shove tubes down her throat and force her if she didn’t do it herself. She was the star attraction, after all.

In the beginning she had tried to talk to them. She tried to tell them that this was wrong, that she was human, at least most of the time. Some of them had even talked back at first. Then, slowly, the talk dried up. Their eyes changed. She wasn’t Hazel anymore, or even Lupe. She was just another animal, dangerous and dirty and stupid. Her own voice dwindled and died away until it was little more than a whisper.

Sometimes she tried to talk to the people who came to see her, too, though she knew they couldn’t hear her through the plastic. She found the ones with pity in their eyes and whispered, “Help me, please,” her slim brown fingers pressed against the barrier like a prayer. But they only lowered their eyes and walked away, and the rest crowded in with their cameras and hungry smiles while a zoo employee crowed over the noise, “It’s your lucky day, folks! Lupe is usually shy – she must see something she likes out there! I’d keep your daughter close, ma’am, she might smell like lunch!”

She still combed her hair with her fingers, though it was filthy and thick with grease, and washed herself with her drinking water every night. It seemed futile, but she couldn’t stop. She couldn’t give up what little was left to her of Hazel, who had once been a pretty girl. She still felt like Hazel, in some deep quiet part of her mind, though the other thing was there, too, snarling around in the darkness like a half-remembered nightmare.

When spring began to melt into summer, she realized that she was nearly nineteen years old. If she thought about it hard enough, she could still imagine a white frosted cake crowned with a tiara of flame, the kind she’d had before the thing happened and she had changed. Her mother had always baked Hazel’s birthday cake herself. “They never get the icing right,” she said of supermarket bakeries.

Hazel hadn’t seen her mother in three years, since she had signed her over like an unwanted pet. The memory still burned in her gut like acid.

In the third week of May, men began erecting high metal bleachers around the enclosure. She knew, then, that the full moon wasn’t far away. She could already feel it humming through her nerves, at the roots of her teeth.

The zoo celebrated the full moon each month by opening the gates after sunset. At moonrise, a crowd gathered around her like shadows, mounting the bleachers eagerly in search of the best seat. Stadium lighting slammed on around her, moths swirling through the fluorescent beams like spinning constellations, and she began to change. It was always painful, the creak and snap of bone, the tearing skin, the sudden stretch of tendon and muscle. But worst of all was the shame, hot and thick like the saliva that filled her mouth, like the scent of blood in her nose.

When she changed she wasn’t Hazel. She wasn’t anybody. She didn’t remember, afterward, only dreamed of it, and the dreams left her shattered and shaking. She buried the bones with tears in her eyes, the shreds and shards of animals they released into the enclosure with her when she was not herself. In her dreams, she heard the delightful squealing of the crowd, felt the juicy burst of flesh under her teeth.

When she saw the men building the bleachers, her stomach twisted. She couldn’t bear the thought of being their monster again, of killing and running and snarling and howling for them. She retreated behind the trees and ignored the sounds of disappointment from the faces behind the glass. The part of her that was still Hazel whispered her plans, but nobody was listening.

The next morning, she awoke before the cattle prod entered her pen. She lay in the cool darkness, tingling from her fingertips to her toes, and waited. It wouldn’t be long.

At seven o’ clock, a small panel opened at the back of the room. A muscle twitched in her flank as she watched. The prod slid inside, and behind it she could see the face of the man that held it. He peered into the gloom, trying to find her with his weak, watery eyes.

The movement flowed through her like liquid silver. She sprang to her feet and reached out suddenly, her fingers closing on the plastic shaft of the prod, behind the crackling end. The man did not expect this; she had always been docile, sluggish and cringing. She jerked him forward, the muscles in her arm contracting. She heard the soft clunk of his head hitting the exterior wall, and felt the sudden slackening of the prod. Flinging it away, she dashed at the panel. It was small but so was she, half-starved as she was. Her hips banged against the rough stone as she came through, but she didn’t feel anything but the man’s skin under her hands. Her teeth closed on his throat before he could scream, and she tore it out with a single jerk of her head. Blood gushed into her mouth, and just for a moment she savored it, before the part of her that was Hazel flooded back and pushed the body away.

She stripped the corpse and zipped the jumpsuit around herself. It was far too big, puddling around her wrists and ankles, and there was a wet bloodstain at the shoulder, but it would have to do for now. The man she shoved into her pen, twisting and breaking the body to make it fit. She couldn’t do anything about the blood on the floor but hope that it would be a few minutes before anyone found it.

The narrow corridor behind her pen opened up on the far side of the tiger enclosure. She was at the very heart of the zoo, surrounded by winding paths and habitats and cages. Her nostrils flared. She smelled the zoo employees moving around her, the animals, the grease from the food carts. The part of her that was not Hazel could see it all like a map, laid out in a pattern of heat and scent.

It was easy enough to avoid the zoo employees at first, though the blood on the jumpsuit unsettled the animals. She spotted an abandoned merchandise cart in front of the reptile house and stole a t-shirt and a pair of running shorts, undressing right there to pull them on. As she left the cart, an alarm began to shriek – they had noticed she was missing. Her loping run carried her over the dirt paths so fast she barely felt the ground under her feet. She could sense people running around her, toward her, and heard their frantic shouting. The animals growled and whickered and whined.

The perimeter wall loomed in front of her, but it was decorative and low. She almost laughed as she vaulted over it. She landed in a crouch on the other side. Behind the wall, she could still hear the faint shouts of zoo employees. They didn’t realize she was outside. They didn’t realize she was free. She began to run again, her stride eating up the sparse grass. She didn’t look back.


“The popular Exhibit X attraction at the Westport Zoo closed last Friday, after the escape of ‘Lupe,’ the first American werewolf in captivity,” a television chattered over the counter. “Authorities are currently searching the surrounding areas for the werewolf, but have no comment as to the whereabouts of this dangerous beast. The full moon rose last night…” A photograph flashed onto the screen – a crouching girl with filthy, matted hair and flashing eyes. She was clothed in only strips of blanket.

“Scary, ain’t it?” The man behind the counter shook his head. “Hope they catch the damn thing.” He turned toward the girl with the shining blonde hair, who was perched across from him on a red vinyl stool. She wore a floaty summer dress that was just a little too big for her and speckled with small flecks of mud. He thought she must be a gardener, what with the mud and the tan. Her thick-lashed brown eyes were fixed on the television. “So what’ll it be, hon?”

“The breakfast platter, please,” she whispered, barely audible over the television. “Extra sausage and bacon.”

“Speak up, hon,” he chuckled, silently deciding to add a couple of pancakes to the girl’s plate, on the house. She looked a bit underfed. “Pretty girl like you shouldn’t ought to be shy.”
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] butterfly mask)
The corpse was discovered just before daybreak, draped across the lush green grass like a sleeping angel. There was some confusion surrounding the time that the body actually appeared on the lawn, for it lay immediately adjacent to a house that had been hosting a large and raucous party for several hours prior to (and during, and even slightly after) the gruesome discovery. Many people admitted to having seen the girl on the grass throughout the course of the night, but had figured her a happy casualty of the bacchanalia and gone on their way.

None of these witnesses could pin down an exact time to seeing her (and it was suspected, if not spoken aloud, that some of them were simply caught up in the excitement of the thing and weren't entirely truthful in their accounts), and so the discovery was attributed to a member of the band, who had wandered out at around five fifteen in the morning and attempted to wake her. It was at this point that he noticed that she didn't have a pulse.

The news quickly circulated. Before long, a knot of people were clustered around the pale figure, breathless with fear and a kind of morbid excitement.

“I’ve never seen a dead body before,” said a girl in a thrilling whisper. She wore shredded green tights and held her thin, nicotine-stained fingers to her mouth.

“You’ve never been a funeral?” someone else inquired.

“That doesn’t count,” the girl said decisively. “It isn’t the same.”

A bobbing wave went through the group as everyone nodded. Most had leaned over the powdered, preserved corpses of distant relatives in pillow-lined boxes, their noses full of the cloying scent of funeral wreaths. This was different – more dignified, somehow. Each person in the cluster felt a certain respect for the dead girl at their feet. She brought mortality to them in a way dead grandparents and great-aunts never had, and each of them seemed to momentarily felt the cold flurry of its wings. Several began speaking at once in an attempt to break the dark spell.

"Does anybody know who she is?"

"I thought I saw her with you on the front porch, isn't that right?"

"Did she come with anyone else?"

All of these questions were answered in the negative. Nobody knew her. No one had sat with her on the front porch. Certainly nobody had come in with her. She seemed to have materialized out of thin air, a fairy-tale princess transported to them by the magic of her last breath.

“Should we call the police?” someone asked tentatively. There was a general murmur of assent, though no one moved to carry out the deed. All of them remained fixed, their eyes on the body that gleamed faintly in the grass. It was as though they feared she might fade into the dewy morning like a phantom if they turned their eyes away.

Finally, a shiver of movement broke the concentration. A young man in a battered straw fedora pulled his cell phone from his pocket and determinedly dialed it. He looked off over the rooftops and young, shivering suburban trees, as though determined not to meet the vigilant eyes of his fellows. He didn't move away, though; he couldn't resist the charm of such a captive audience.

The call was brief and relatively uninteresting. The best part was when the young man said, "We've found a dead body," in a tone that he obviously intended to be nonchalant, but came out as though he imagined himself as some kind of hard-bitten TV detective. One of the girls at the back of the group tittered nervously.

When it was all over, the young man turned to the rest of them, and they gathered in around him with expressions that were somehow both curious and conspiratorial. "They're on their way," he said. This time he got the tone right, but his eager face belied his enthusiasm.

There was a sudden swell of talk, like a breaking wave, and then silence again. Eyes full of meaning sought each other in the crowd, then turned to the body, then flicked away again. The moment of reverent focus was gone, but the fascination remained. Some people stepped gingerly closer, and the bravest knelt to get a better look.

"She's pretty," a girl with a blonde mohawk said. And she was. She wore a short, lacy party dress, the color of champagne bubbles. She had long, honey colored hair and a delicate face. On one of her fingers, she wore a ring shaped like a butterfly.

This was all people could remember, when later asked. They had stared and stared and stared at her, but could only ever faintly remember what she looked like. It was like trying to remember a dream, and scraps of it seemed to be continually floating away from them.

The ambulance and police cars arrived ten minutes later. Statements were given, reports written, and the staccato lightning of camera flashes flickered over the grass as the first blades of daylight sliced across the sky. Then, almost ceremoniously, like an honor guard, they placed the body on a stretcher and bore it grimly away. The partygoers watched with hungry eyes until the last of the taillights turned the corner and rushed away.

No one ever figured out who she was. No one ever claimed her. She faded quickly into a story to interest dates or relatives, a macabre token of the speaker's worldliness and wild ways. They talked about her romantically, dramatically, hanging meaning and wonder and mystery on the fragile shell of their memories. They built her up like an idol of mist, powerful and vague. She was the smoke that curled from their cigarettes, the tension that hung between their words, the pale-blue moment just before the summer sun breaks across the morning sky. Almost solid, almost someone, but not quite.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] butterfly mask)
The corpse was discovered just before daybreak, draped across the lush green grass like a sleeping angel. There was some confusion surrounding the time that the body actually appeared on the lawn, for it lay immediately adjacent to a house that had been hosting a large and raucous party for several hours prior to (and during, and even slightly after) the gruesome discovery. Many people admitted to having seen the girl on the grass throughout the course of the night, but had figured her a happy casualty of the bacchanalia and gone on their way.

None of these witnesses could pin down an exact time to seeing her (and it was suspected, if not spoken aloud, that some of them were simply caught up in the excitement of the thing and weren't entirely truthful in their accounts), and so the discovery was attributed to a member of the band, who had wandered out at around five fifteen in the morning and attempted to wake her. It was at this point that he noticed that she didn't have a pulse.

The news quickly circulated. Before long, a knot of people were clustered around the pale figure, breathless with fear and a kind of morbid excitement.

“I’ve never seen a dead body before,” said a girl in a thrilling whisper. She wore shredded green tights and held her thin, nicotine-stained fingers to her mouth.

“You’ve never been a funeral?” someone else inquired.

“That doesn’t count,” the girl said decisively. “It isn’t the same.”

A bobbing wave went through the group as everyone nodded. Most had leaned over the powdered, preserved corpses of distant relatives in pillow-lined boxes, their noses full of the cloying scent of funeral wreaths. This was different – more dignified, somehow. Each person in the cluster felt a certain respect for the dead girl at their feet. She brought mortality to them in a way dead grandparents and great-aunts never had, and each of them seemed to momentarily felt the cold flurry of its wings. Several began speaking at once in an attempt to break the dark spell.

"Does anybody know who she is?"

"I thought I saw her with you on the front porch, isn't that right?"

"Did she come with anyone else?"

All of these questions were answered in the negative. Nobody knew her. No one had sat with her on the front porch. Certainly nobody had come in with her. She seemed to have materialized out of thin air, a fairy-tale princess transported to them by the magic of her last breath.

“Should we call the police?” someone asked tentatively. There was a general murmur of assent, though no one moved to carry out the deed. All of them remained fixed, their eyes on the body that gleamed faintly in the grass. It was as though they feared she might fade into the dewy morning like a phantom if they turned their eyes away.

Finally, a shiver of movement broke the concentration. A young man in a battered straw fedora pulled his cell phone from his pocket and determinedly dialed it. He looked off over the rooftops and young, shivering suburban trees, as though determined not to meet the vigilant eyes of his fellows. He didn't move away, though; he couldn't resist the charm of such a captive audience.

The call was brief and relatively uninteresting. The best part was when the young man said, "We've found a dead body," in a tone that he obviously intended to be nonchalant, but came out as though he imagined himself as some kind of hard-bitten TV detective. One of the girls at the back of the group tittered nervously.

When it was all over, the young man turned to the rest of them, and they gathered in around him with expressions that were somehow both curious and conspiratorial. "They're on their way," he said. This time he got the tone right, but his eager face belied his enthusiasm.

There was a sudden swell of talk, like a breaking wave, and then silence again. Eyes full of meaning sought each other in the crowd, then turned to the body, then flicked away again. The moment of reverent focus was gone, but the fascination remained. Some people stepped gingerly closer, and the bravest knelt to get a better look.

"She's pretty," a girl with a blonde mohawk said. And she was. She wore a short, lacy party dress, the color of champagne bubbles. She had long, honey colored hair and a delicate face. On one of her fingers, she wore a ring shaped like a butterfly.

This was all people could remember, when later asked. They had stared and stared and stared at her, but could only ever faintly remember what she looked like. It was like trying to remember a dream, and scraps of it seemed to be continually floating away from them.

The ambulance and police cars arrived ten minutes later. Statements were given, reports written, and the staccato lightning of camera flashes flickered over the grass as the first blades of daylight sliced across the sky. Then, almost ceremoniously, like an honor guard, they placed the body on a stretcher and bore it grimly away. The partygoers watched with hungry eyes until the last of the taillights turned the corner and rushed away.

No one ever figured out who she was. No one ever claimed her. She faded quickly into a story to interest dates or relatives, a macabre token of the speaker's worldliness and wild ways. They talked about her romantically, dramatically, hanging meaning and wonder and mystery on the fragile shell of their memories. They built her up like an idol of mist, powerful and vague. She was the smoke that curled from their cigarettes, the tension that hung between their words, the pale-blue moment just before the summer sun breaks across the morning sky. Almost solid, almost someone, but not quite.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] my kingdom on the waves)
One hour after dark. Tucked into a dark corner, a man in a black coat watched people drift down the narrow junction of streets across from Stayman's Pharmacy and the crumbling old cinemaplex, its lights still blinking to advertise a two-year-old nudie flick. He'd been to see it himself, six months ago, because even a shitty old theater showing shitty old movies was better than nothing. The sound hadn't worked well, and there were sections of the film that were entirely unwatchable due to tears and burns in the celluloid, but it was an all right way to pass an evening. Better than this, anyway.

None of the people passing him were right for what he wanted. He could tell at a glance - he'd been doing this a long time. Nearly all of them had Tik parts, and cheap ones at that. The ones that didn't were too old or too haggard. His clients had paid him well to get what they wanted: fresh, young, and one hundred percent human.

Of course, people like that, they just assumed that the streets were packed with that kind of stock, like they had been in the old days. It was some kind of romantic notion that'd started going around in the rich parts of town years ago. They'd even made films about it, though those were the kinds of films that only showed in the richie cinemas uptown, and he had never seen one. Still, he got the gist. Always a poor couple, deeply in love, living out their brief lives in a passionate whirl of emotion. Eventually finding meaning in each other, shunning Cybernetik parts, and dying young but whole in each other's arms. So on and so forth, blah blah blah.

It was stupid, and deep down they had to know it wasn't real. It was just something to entertain them. The poor sections of town weren't romantic, and they certainly weren't full of young, able-bodied humans living out their short but meaningful and happy lives together. If anything, there were probably more Cybernetiks among the poor than the wealthy. Richies, at least, could pay someone to obtain human parts if they needed a little fixer-upper. Someone like him.

He himself had Tik parts, though he didn't like to advertise that. His work had afforded him enough cash to get decent ones, and they weren't as immediately obvious as the cheap stuff. His left eye was all Tik, replaced three years ago, and most of the bones and tendons in his left arm were as well. He'd been in a car accident, and that seemed the only way to go if he didn't want to be permanently disabled.

He hadn't wanted to do it - like everyone else, before he'd needed them he'd planned never to get Cybernetiks. Like everyone else, he hadn't wanted to be less than human.

He'd realized after he'd gotten them, though, that everyone did it. They said they never would, but everyone did in the end. Nobody really wanted to weaken, to decay. Nobody wanted to die. But nobody wanted to admit that they were cheating it, either. It was that romance thing again. There was nothing romantic about replacing your body parts with machines when they got damaged or wore out. It was more romantic to think about grabbing on to the short time you had and making the most of it. But nobody really did that, not anymore. They just pretended.

And the richies, well. They cheated in their own way, to avoid the stigma. This way they were all human, all the time, and could look down their noses at the Tiks. It was just one more thing to feel superior about.

He sighed. It was nearly eight o' clock now. Curfew was at ten, and his apartment was on the other side of town. Traffic being what it was, it'd take him nearly an hour to get back to his place. If he didn't spot someone soon, he was giving it up as a bad job. He'd go back out on the weekend, when there were more people around and the curfew was extended an hour. The richies could wait.

Then he spotted her. She just drifted down the street in front of him, turning down Pier Avenue without the slightest glance around her. She wore a navy blue dress that was at least one size too big for her, and a ragged tan overcoat with a small collection of pins and buttons around the collar that winked in the streetlights. She was obviously underfed, but pretty nonetheless - he could make out her fine features in the dimness. She had long, sweeping black hair that fell down her back like dark water. And, best of all, she was completely human.

It wasn't always easy to tell if they were all human, but he had developed a knack for it. Of course, Tiks in this part of town were usually pretty obvious, with maker's marks stamped on them or visible joints or frayed prosthetic skin. Even if the Tiks were only on the inside, organs or bones or muscles, people just moved differently. He could spot them a mile off. This girl, though. She was one hundred percent.

When she had gotten a few yards ahead of him, the man in the black coat pushed off the wall and began to follow her. He was careful to keep his footsteps silent, but the girl never so much as turned her head. She was obviously the kind of girl who had been coddled, in the limited way that people around here could coddle a person. No doubt everyone in this neighborhood knew her, the pretty girl with the long black hair, and treated her like their own little pauper-princess. Nobody'd ever think to lay a hand on her.

When she didn't turn up at home that night, the alarm would be raised quickly. People would turn out in droves, sacrificing what little sleep they usually got to call her name in the streets. It wouldn't matter, though, by that time. He would already be gone, and so would she.

The buildings on either side of the street melted away suddenly, revealing the riverfront. It was as decrepit as everything else; the bank of the river was strewn with trash, and the air stank. It was muggier down here, as though the fetid water of the river pressed down against the eyes and skin. The man in black hung back in the mouth of street, watching the wraithlike figure of the girl moving between the streetlights. What was she doing down here? Meeting some lover?

Many of the streetlights along the river had gone out, and the girl seemed to blink in and out of existence entirely as she moved through these swathes of darkness. He realized that she was heading toward a large, run-down building overlooking the river - a defunct ferry station. Without the slightest hesitation, she entered the darkened building. He himself paused for a moment before following her inside; it was rare for him to go so far before taking out a target, and he would have to find a place to stash the girl while he went back for his car. Moving around so much could attract attention. His eyes flicked over to the blank-eyed windows of the buildings across the street. All were dark, and his Tik eye did not pick out any shadows against the glass.

The girl was too good to leave behind. He had never taken a target in such good shape. Drawing a deep, silent breath, he walked through one of the empty doorways into the station.

He paused just inside the door, his eyes swiveling back and forth over the broken-down interior, trying to locate the girl. Rubbish was piled up nearly to the ceiling in some places, mostly parts of old vehicles and other scrap metal, and it took him a moment to spot her. She was moving slowly between the pillars of junk, as if browsing. Perhaps she was looking for something in particular, something she'd hidden here. The idea appealed to him. Even he was romantic, in his way. He moved quickly towards her, drawing a small bottle of chemicals and a rag out of the inside pocket of his black coat.

The shock, when it came, was so unexpected that he kept moving for several steps without realizing that he was falling. His knees hit the floor, and the bottle of chemicals rolled out of his limp hand and rang out against the concrete floor. He tried to look around to see what had happened, but another electric charge coursed through his body. His left arm seized up, and his left eye seemed to vibrate in its socket, bright points of light bursting inside it. His chin slid toward his chest, and he would have fallen on his face if a large hand had not clamped down on his shoulder, keeping him upright.

When he looked up, the girl was standing right in front of him. She was just as pretty as he had thought, with sharp, aristocratic features and fathomless black eyes. She seemed to be looking him over - not as though she was curious about who he was or where he had come from, though. More as if she was evaluating him. Taking stock.

"Tik?" She asked someone behind him.

"Some parts on the left side," came the reply. The voice that belonged to the hand on his shoulder was male.

"Organs?"

"Don't think so."

The girl knelt and began to prod him with long, bony fingers. "No," she said. "He's got most of those, at least."

"Would be better if he didn't have any Tiks," the male voice said.

She shook her head, her black hair swaying hypnotically around her face. "We can sell those, too. They won't go for as much, but there are still buyers. Anyway, where do you find someone without Tiks down here?"

She got to her feet. "Well," she said, her voice rich with amusement. The man looked up at her, though pain shot through his body with the movement. "Thought you'd stumbled on a prize, didn't you? You wouldn't be the first."

He didn't answer - there wasn't time. He felt the jab of a needle in his neck, and the vision in his right eye immediately began to blur, as if he was looking at the scene from underwater. His Tik eye, however, stayed open and focused on the girl in the navy blue dress. She looked down at him, smiled, and closed his eyelids with a gentle hand.

And then he was gone, washed away.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] my kingdom on the waves)
One hour after dark. Tucked into a dark corner, a man in a black coat watched people drift down the narrow junction of streets across from Stayman's Pharmacy and the crumbling old cinemaplex, its lights still blinking to advertise a two-year-old nudie flick. He'd been to see it himself, six months ago, because even a shitty old theater showing shitty old movies was better than nothing. The sound hadn't worked well, and there were sections of the film that were entirely unwatchable due to tears and burns in the celluloid, but it was an all right way to pass an evening. Better than this, anyway.

None of the people passing him were right for what he wanted. He could tell at a glance - he'd been doing this a long time. Nearly all of them had Tik parts, and cheap ones at that. The ones that didn't were too old or too haggard. His clients had paid him well to get what they wanted: fresh, young, and one hundred percent human.

Of course, people like that, they just assumed that the streets were packed with that kind of stock, like they had been in the old days. It was some kind of romantic notion that'd started going around in the rich parts of town years ago. They'd even made films about it, though those were the kinds of films that only showed in the richie cinemas uptown, and he had never seen one. Still, he got the gist. Always a poor couple, deeply in love, living out their brief lives in a passionate whirl of emotion. Eventually finding meaning in each other, shunning Cybernetik parts, and dying young but whole in each other's arms. So on and so forth, blah blah blah.

It was stupid, and deep down they had to know it wasn't real. It was just something to entertain them. The poor sections of town weren't romantic, and they certainly weren't full of young, able-bodied humans living out their short but meaningful and happy lives together. If anything, there were probably more Cybernetiks among the poor than the wealthy. Richies, at least, could pay someone to obtain human parts if they needed a little fixer-upper. Someone like him.

He himself had Tik parts, though he didn't like to advertise that. His work had afforded him enough cash to get decent ones, and they weren't as immediately obvious as the cheap stuff. His left eye was all Tik, replaced three years ago, and most of the bones and tendons in his left arm were as well. He'd been in a car accident, and that seemed the only way to go if he didn't want to be permanently disabled.

He hadn't wanted to do it - like everyone else, before he'd needed them he'd planned never to get Cybernetiks. Like everyone else, he hadn't wanted to be less than human.

He'd realized after he'd gotten them, though, that everyone did it. They said they never would, but everyone did in the end. Nobody really wanted to weaken, to decay. Nobody wanted to die. But nobody wanted to admit that they were cheating it, either. It was that romance thing again. There was nothing romantic about replacing your body parts with machines when they got damaged or wore out. It was more romantic to think about grabbing on to the short time you had and making the most of it. But nobody really did that, not anymore. They just pretended.

And the richies, well. They cheated in their own way, to avoid the stigma. This way they were all human, all the time, and could look down their noses at the Tiks. It was just one more thing to feel superior about.

He sighed. It was nearly eight o' clock now. Curfew was at ten, and his apartment was on the other side of town. Traffic being what it was, it'd take him nearly an hour to get back to his place. If he didn't spot someone soon, he was giving it up as a bad job. He'd go back out on the weekend, when there were more people around and the curfew was extended an hour. The richies could wait.

Then he spotted her. She just drifted down the street in front of him, turning down Pier Avenue without the slightest glance around her. She wore a navy blue dress that was at least one size too big for her, and a ragged tan overcoat with a small collection of pins and buttons around the collar that winked in the streetlights. She was obviously underfed, but pretty nonetheless - he could make out her fine features in the dimness. She had long, sweeping black hair that fell down her back like dark water. And, best of all, she was completely human.

It wasn't always easy to tell if they were all human, but he had developed a knack for it. Of course, Tiks in this part of town were usually pretty obvious, with maker's marks stamped on them or visible joints or frayed prosthetic skin. Even if the Tiks were only on the inside, organs or bones or muscles, people just moved differently. He could spot them a mile off. This girl, though. She was one hundred percent.

When she had gotten a few yards ahead of him, the man in the black coat pushed off the wall and began to follow her. He was careful to keep his footsteps silent, but the girl never so much as turned her head. She was obviously the kind of girl who had been coddled, in the limited way that people around here could coddle a person. No doubt everyone in this neighborhood knew her, the pretty girl with the long black hair, and treated her like their own little pauper-princess. Nobody'd ever think to lay a hand on her.

When she didn't turn up at home that night, the alarm would be raised quickly. People would turn out in droves, sacrificing what little sleep they usually got to call her name in the streets. It wouldn't matter, though, by that time. He would already be gone, and so would she.

The buildings on either side of the street melted away suddenly, revealing the riverfront. It was as decrepit as everything else; the bank of the river was strewn with trash, and the air stank. It was muggier down here, as though the fetid water of the river pressed down against the eyes and skin. The man in black hung back in the mouth of street, watching the wraithlike figure of the girl moving between the streetlights. What was she doing down here? Meeting some lover?

Many of the streetlights along the river had gone out, and the girl seemed to blink in and out of existence entirely as she moved through these swathes of darkness. He realized that she was heading toward a large, run-down building overlooking the river - a defunct ferry station. Without the slightest hesitation, she entered the darkened building. He himself paused for a moment before following her inside; it was rare for him to go so far before taking out a target, and he would have to find a place to stash the girl while he went back for his car. Moving around so much could attract attention. His eyes flicked over to the blank-eyed windows of the buildings across the street. All were dark, and his Tik eye did not pick out any shadows against the glass.

The girl was too good to leave behind. He had never taken a target in such good shape. Drawing a deep, silent breath, he walked through one of the empty doorways into the station.

He paused just inside the door, his eyes swiveling back and forth over the broken-down interior, trying to locate the girl. Rubbish was piled up nearly to the ceiling in some places, mostly parts of old vehicles and other scrap metal, and it took him a moment to spot her. She was moving slowly between the pillars of junk, as if browsing. Perhaps she was looking for something in particular, something she'd hidden here. The idea appealed to him. Even he was romantic, in his way. He moved quickly towards her, drawing a small bottle of chemicals and a rag out of the inside pocket of his black coat.

The shock, when it came, was so unexpected that he kept moving for several steps without realizing that he was falling. His knees hit the floor, and the bottle of chemicals rolled out of his limp hand and rang out against the concrete floor. He tried to look around to see what had happened, but another electric charge coursed through his body. His left arm seized up, and his left eye seemed to vibrate in its socket, bright points of light bursting inside it. His chin slid toward his chest, and he would have fallen on his face if a large hand had not clamped down on his shoulder, keeping him upright.

When he looked up, the girl was standing right in front of him. She was just as pretty as he had thought, with sharp, aristocratic features and fathomless black eyes. She seemed to be looking him over - not as though she was curious about who he was or where he had come from, though. More as if she was evaluating him. Taking stock.

"Tik?" She asked someone behind him.

"Some parts on the left side," came the reply. The voice that belonged to the hand on his shoulder was male.

"Organs?"

"Don't think so."

The girl knelt and began to prod him with long, bony fingers. "No," she said. "He's got most of those, at least."

"Would be better if he didn't have any Tiks," the male voice said.

She shook her head, her black hair swaying hypnotically around her face. "We can sell those, too. They won't go for as much, but there are still buyers. Anyway, where do you find someone without Tiks down here?"

She got to her feet. "Well," she said, her voice rich with amusement. The man looked up at her, though pain shot through his body with the movement. "Thought you'd stumbled on a prize, didn't you? You wouldn't be the first."

He didn't answer - there wasn't time. He felt the jab of a needle in his neck, and the vision in his right eye immediately began to blur, as if he was looking at the scene from underwater. His Tik eye, however, stayed open and focused on the girl in the navy blue dress. She looked down at him, smiled, and closed his eyelids with a gentle hand.

And then he was gone, washed away.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([animal] wolf cub)
Even after the world caught fire and the rivers and lakes burned away, the temple at the edge of the sea stood sentinel over black waves. It was built of stone that had been scoured white by salty wind, and was unornamented apart from the stone wolf’s head that rose on a spire forty feet in the air. The spire had been there long before the wolf’s head, bare and sharp as a fang, though records of that time had been purged from the temple’s library. The bold black letters bearing the former name of the place had been covered over with white paint. Even if the words had been visible, they would have had no meaning now. The world had grown and withered and changed, and the old ways had been forgotten.

Lue liked to watch the sea, sitting on the lip of a rocky overhang with her robes and black hair snapping in the chill wind. It was only when she looked out on the water that she felt alive – a miniscule heart beating red and rich and vibrant in a colorless world. Whenever she could, she slipped out of the dormitory and stared out at the waves, dreaming of boats and kites and sea monsters that would bear her away from this cold, rocky hill. Lately she even crept out of the temple during prayers, the headache that pounded down on her in the smoky, fragrant building dissolving at the first rush of sea air.

They were praying now; she could hear the murmuring of voices coming through the wind in low, musical bursts. She didn’t fear being caught, really – most of the other devotees were so enraptured during prayer that they wouldn’t notice if she cartwheeled out of the building. It wasn’t likely that anyone had noticed her edging out of the door while all heads were bowed, silent as a wraith in her bare feet.

She had never felt the same euphoria that seemed to grip the others during prayer. The temple left her cold, even with all of its lush trappings – the heavy black velvet curtains, the carefully painted scenes of running wolves… even the minutely crafted silver statue of the wolf god himself, with its sparkling golden eyes, did not move her to gasps of wonder like it did the others. Sometimes Lue wondered if anything apart from the sea could move her heart. A curious way, she thought, for the living receptacle of a god to feel.

For Lue, it was said, was god-touched. She had been chosen by the wolf god before she had even been born, and marked with his sign – golden eyes, like his. Old Bett, the grey woman that ran the tiny women's dormitory, told her that her mother had brought her to the temple the day the sign was clear, tears dripping from her chin.

“She were only a simple woman,” Bett said, “and rightly god-fearing. She knew the temple was the only place you’d be properly cared for, so she gave you your name – all she had to give, the poor thing – and handed you over to Master Lycus himself.”

Master Lycus was the religious leader at the temple, a tall, broad-shouldered man with an imperious manner and eyes and hair the color of lead. He was as close to a father figure as Lue could remember having – a distant father, perhaps, but a father all the same. He was Lue’s primary teacher, as he did not trust the others to instruct her properly in the ways of the order. As she grew older, Lue understood that this controlling aspect of his character was born out of true devotion to the wolf god rather than an overbearing personality, but she still chafed at it. She chafed at everything about temple life. As far as she was concerned, she hadn’t asked for golden eyes, and just because she happened to have them didn’t mean that her entire life should be signed away to a god she didn’t even believe in.

It had taken a long time for her to decide that she didn’t believe in the wolf god, but once she came to that conclusion there was no undoing it. The thought was like a knot in her belly. Everything in her life led in and out of it. She just didn’t understand how anyone could be happy in this life – cloistered in a miserable huddle of rocks, praying for hours to a god who never seemed to listen and certainly never replied.

A sudden lash of rain struck her face. Lue knew she should go inside; the rain would make it obvious that she had left during prayers, and the devotees would be upset with her for putting her health at risk. She was their treasure, and they treated her like a piece of sea glass rather than a girl of fifteen summers. When she stood, though, she walked along the cliff-edge rather than back toward the temple. She couldn’t bear the thought of going back there, into the musky, incense-wreathed room and the garbled roar of prayer.

The rain was falling in sheets now, coursing through her hair and into her clothes, soaking her to the bone. It clouded her vision, and she imagined a bridge of water shimmering in the air, leading her up over the ocean and into another world.

And then she heard the scream.

Lue whipped around like a rapier. Even through the downpour, she could see a thick column of smoke rising from the roof of the temple, and a flashing tongue of flame. For a moment she froze, indecisive, and then tore toward the building, her wet robes flapping heavily around her.

Just before she reached the door, it slammed open, and Master Lycus staggered out. Behind him, she could hear jeering laughter and screaming, twisted together in a horrible, cacophonous melody.

“Lue,” Master Lycus gasped, and he threw out one of his large, calloused hands to push her aside. “Get away!”

“Where do you think you’re going, old man?” The sound of booted feet, and raucous calling from a dozen male voices. Master Lycus looked at her desperately, and the fear in his normally impassable face spurred her to action. Quick as a flash, she slipped around the edge of the temple, blood hammering in her ears.

She knew she should run for the dormitory, at least, or find a place to hide, but there seemed to be an invisible chain linking her to Master Lycus. She could not see him, but she could hear him, his strong voice rising above the pounding of the rain.

“Stop! We are people of peace, dedicated only to service of our god. Do not harm us!”

More laughter. The sound went through Lue like a spear, setting her heart afire.

“We don’t like your god, old man. He’s a pretender, like you, and needs to be stamped out. We worship another god – the only god. We are here in his service.” The voice was harsh with anger and pride.

Master Lycus murmured something that Lue did not catch, and the harsh-voiced man snorted derisively. Lue felt a sob rise in her throat, and she bit her lips to keep it in. “Stop your begging. We are here in the name of righteousness, and the pleadings of devils do not move us. Now get on your knees. Joshua!” Lue assumed he was calling to one of his comrades. She listened closely, tears burning her eyes, but Master Lycus said nothing else. Instead there was the sound of metal, the cold, sibilant hiss of it, and a whistling like the wind. A ragged cry, and then only the sound of rain. The door to the temple slammed.

For a moment, Lue remained where she was, shuddering with fear. Then she tore herself from the wall and ran back around to the front of the temple. What she saw there drove her to her knees.

Master Lycus’s body lay on the cold ground in front of the temple. Blood pumped from the open maw of his neck, flooding into the sparse winter grass. His head was gone. Retching and shaking violently, Lue vomited onto the ground in front of her. The world shimmered, blackened, and refocused. All thought had abandoned her. She could imagine nothing further than Master Lycus’s broken body and the smell of bile in her nose.

And then, from within the temple, the screams began again. It was almost as though they were being torn from her own throat, ripped from the darkest place inside her. Others were dying – being slain, mutilated, and maybe even worse – and here she was, cowering helplessly in the rain. A sudden burst of energy arced through her body like a bolt of lightning, and she leapt to her feet with a howl. She moved faster than she thought possible, with strength she did not recognize as her own. When she threw open the door, it seemed to her that she ripped it from its hinges and threw it in splinters behind her. All the hair on her body stood on end, and she felt her lips draw back into a savage roar.

Eyes glinted at her from inside the darkened temple, and she smelled smoke and blood and fear. There was no laughing now. In seconds she picked them out – men in crude leather armor, with a white sigil of two crossed lines across their chests. They gaped at her. Beyond them she could see the shapes of bodies on the floor.

For an infinite moment, they did not move. And then, suddenly, the white flash of a reaching hand and a glint of steel. Rage burst from her throat in a guttural growl, and she tore down the center aisle, her vision flooded with golden light and the taste of blood in her mouth.



Afterward, she could remember nothing but a handful of images - the open mouth of one of the men, his scream vibrating on the air; the snapping of a bone under her hands; the warm wash of blood over her tongue. When at last she came back to herself, she was kneeling on the floor of the temple, ringed in leather-clad corpses. She did not see them. Before her was the statue of the wolf god, his golden eyes picking her out of the darkness like burning coals. He drew her gaze like a magnet, and the air between them shimmered with power. She saw the smile between his teeth, the love and pride in his glinting eyes.

She burned the bodies of the devotees, piling incense on the fire. Master Lycus's head she removed from the pike on which it had been impaled, and she stroked the lead-colored hair before she consigned it to the flames. The men in armor she flung over the edge of the cliff, watching their bodies shatter on the rocks below. Her strength no longer surprised her - she could feel the wolf god in every stretch of her muscles, in every beat of her heart. His power was hers now, vicious and terrible and beautiful.

The statue she placed in a nook on the cliff face. She imagined him watching the sea, his brilliant gaze piercing through the darkest of sea storms.

When she left the temple, she did not look back. She carried only the merest provisions, but she did not worry about that. The wolf god would provide. Already she could scent blood and bone on the air, and the heartbeats of hundreds of creatures thrummed in her ears. Her loping steps seemed to carry her miles in an instant, the world an array of color and taste and sound around her. And under it all, the golden touch of the wolf god flowed like ichor in her veins. Where he led, she would follow. She would feast on the flesh of his enemies. She would see them broken under her hands.

As daylight slashed the purple sky with gold and palest blue, Lue stopped and sniffed the air. Her black hair lay matted against her back. Her eyes glimmered. Her lips, darkest red, drew back into a hungry smile.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([animal] wolf cub)
Even after the world caught fire and the rivers and lakes burned away, the temple at the edge of the sea stood sentinel over black waves. It was built of stone that had been scoured white by salty wind, and was unornamented apart from the stone wolf’s head that rose on a spire forty feet in the air. The spire had been there long before the wolf’s head, bare and sharp as a fang, though records of that time had been purged from the temple’s library. The bold black letters bearing the former name of the place had been covered over with white paint. Even if the words had been visible, they would have had no meaning now. The world had grown and withered and changed, and the old ways had been forgotten.

Lue liked to watch the sea, sitting on the lip of a rocky overhang with her robes and black hair snapping in the chill wind. It was only when she looked out on the water that she felt alive – a miniscule heart beating red and rich and vibrant in a colorless world. Whenever she could, she slipped out of the dormitory and stared out at the waves, dreaming of boats and kites and sea monsters that would bear her away from this cold, rocky hill. Lately she even crept out of the temple during prayers, the headache that pounded down on her in the smoky, fragrant building dissolving at the first rush of sea air.

They were praying now; she could hear the murmuring of voices coming through the wind in low, musical bursts. She didn’t fear being caught, really – most of the other devotees were so enraptured during prayer that they wouldn’t notice if she cartwheeled out of the building. It wasn’t likely that anyone had noticed her edging out of the door while all heads were bowed, silent as a wraith in her bare feet.

She had never felt the same euphoria that seemed to grip the others during prayer. The temple left her cold, even with all of its lush trappings – the heavy black velvet curtains, the carefully painted scenes of running wolves… even the minutely crafted silver statue of the wolf god himself, with its sparkling golden eyes, did not move her to gasps of wonder like it did the others. Sometimes Lue wondered if anything apart from the sea could move her heart. A curious way, she thought, for the living receptacle of a god to feel.

For Lue, it was said, was god-touched. She had been chosen by the wolf god before she had even been born, and marked with his sign – golden eyes, like his. Old Bett, the grey woman that ran the tiny women's dormitory, told her that her mother had brought her to the temple the day the sign was clear, tears dripping from her chin.

“She were only a simple woman,” Bett said, “and rightly god-fearing. She knew the temple was the only place you’d be properly cared for, so she gave you your name – all she had to give, the poor thing – and handed you over to Master Lycus himself.”

Master Lycus was the religious leader at the temple, a tall, broad-shouldered man with an imperious manner and eyes and hair the color of lead. He was as close to a father figure as Lue could remember having – a distant father, perhaps, but a father all the same. He was Lue’s primary teacher, as he did not trust the others to instruct her properly in the ways of the order. As she grew older, Lue understood that this controlling aspect of his character was born out of true devotion to the wolf god rather than an overbearing personality, but she still chafed at it. She chafed at everything about temple life. As far as she was concerned, she hadn’t asked for golden eyes, and just because she happened to have them didn’t mean that her entire life should be signed away to a god she didn’t even believe in.

It had taken a long time for her to decide that she didn’t believe in the wolf god, but once she came to that conclusion there was no undoing it. The thought was like a knot in her belly. Everything in her life led in and out of it. She just didn’t understand how anyone could be happy in this life – cloistered in a miserable huddle of rocks, praying for hours to a god who never seemed to listen and certainly never replied.

A sudden lash of rain struck her face. Lue knew she should go inside; the rain would make it obvious that she had left during prayers, and the devotees would be upset with her for putting her health at risk. She was their treasure, and they treated her like a piece of sea glass rather than a girl of fifteen summers. When she stood, though, she walked along the cliff-edge rather than back toward the temple. She couldn’t bear the thought of going back there, into the musky, incense-wreathed room and the garbled roar of prayer.

The rain was falling in sheets now, coursing through her hair and into her clothes, soaking her to the bone. It clouded her vision, and she imagined a bridge of water shimmering in the air, leading her up over the ocean and into another world.

And then she heard the scream.

Lue whipped around like a rapier. Even through the downpour, she could see a thick column of smoke rising from the roof of the temple, and a flashing tongue of flame. For a moment she froze, indecisive, and then tore toward the building, her wet robes flapping heavily around her.

Just before she reached the door, it slammed open, and Master Lycus staggered out. Behind him, she could hear jeering laughter and screaming, twisted together in a horrible, cacophonous melody.

“Lue,” Master Lycus gasped, and he threw out one of his large, calloused hands to push her aside. “Get away!”

“Where do you think you’re going, old man?” The sound of booted feet, and raucous calling from a dozen male voices. Master Lycus looked at her desperately, and the fear in his normally impassable face spurred her to action. Quick as a flash, she slipped around the edge of the temple, blood hammering in her ears.

She knew she should run for the dormitory, at least, or find a place to hide, but there seemed to be an invisible chain linking her to Master Lycus. She could not see him, but she could hear him, his strong voice rising above the pounding of the rain.

“Stop! We are people of peace, dedicated only to service of our god. Do not harm us!”

More laughter. The sound went through Lue like a spear, setting her heart afire.

“We don’t like your god, old man. He’s a pretender, like you, and needs to be stamped out. We worship another god – the only god. We are here in his service.” The voice was harsh with anger and pride.

Master Lycus murmured something that Lue did not catch, and the harsh-voiced man snorted derisively. Lue felt a sob rise in her throat, and she bit her lips to keep it in. “Stop your begging. We are here in the name of righteousness, and the pleadings of devils do not move us. Now get on your knees. Joshua!” Lue assumed he was calling to one of his comrades. She listened closely, tears burning her eyes, but Master Lycus said nothing else. Instead there was the sound of metal, the cold, sibilant hiss of it, and a whistling like the wind. A ragged cry, and then only the sound of rain. The door to the temple slammed.

For a moment, Lue remained where she was, shuddering with fear. Then she tore herself from the wall and ran back around to the front of the temple. What she saw there drove her to her knees.

Master Lycus’s body lay on the cold ground in front of the temple. Blood pumped from the open maw of his neck, flooding into the sparse winter grass. His head was gone. Retching and shaking violently, Lue vomited onto the ground in front of her. The world shimmered, blackened, and refocused. All thought had abandoned her. She could imagine nothing further than Master Lycus’s broken body and the smell of bile in her nose.

And then, from within the temple, the screams began again. It was almost as though they were being torn from her own throat, ripped from the darkest place inside her. Others were dying – being slain, mutilated, and maybe even worse – and here she was, cowering helplessly in the rain. A sudden burst of energy arced through her body like a bolt of lightning, and she leapt to her feet with a howl. She moved faster than she thought possible, with strength she did not recognize as her own. When she threw open the door, it seemed to her that she ripped it from its hinges and threw it in splinters behind her. All the hair on her body stood on end, and she felt her lips draw back into a savage roar.

Eyes glinted at her from inside the darkened temple, and she smelled smoke and blood and fear. There was no laughing now. In seconds she picked them out – men in crude leather armor, with a white sigil of two crossed lines across their chests. They gaped at her. Beyond them she could see the shapes of bodies on the floor.

For an infinite moment, they did not move. And then, suddenly, the white flash of a reaching hand and a glint of steel. Rage burst from her throat in a guttural growl, and she tore down the center aisle, her vision flooded with golden light and the taste of blood in her mouth.



Afterward, she could remember nothing but a handful of images - the open mouth of one of the men, his scream vibrating on the air; the snapping of a bone under her hands; the warm wash of blood over her tongue. When at last she came back to herself, she was kneeling on the floor of the temple, ringed in leather-clad corpses. She did not see them. Before her was the statue of the wolf god, his golden eyes picking her out of the darkness like burning coals. He drew her gaze like a magnet, and the air between them shimmered with power. She saw the smile between his teeth, the love and pride in his glinting eyes.

She burned the bodies of the devotees, piling incense on the fire. Master Lycus's head she removed from the pike on which it had been impaled, and she stroked the lead-colored hair before she consigned it to the flames. The men in armor she flung over the edge of the cliff, watching their bodies shatter on the rocks below. Her strength no longer surprised her - she could feel the wolf god in every stretch of her muscles, in every beat of her heart. His power was hers now, vicious and terrible and beautiful.

The statue she placed in a nook on the cliff face. She imagined him watching the sea, his brilliant gaze piercing through the darkest of sea storms.

When she left the temple, she did not look back. She carried only the merest provisions, but she did not worry about that. The wolf god would provide. Already she could scent blood and bone on the air, and the heartbeats of hundreds of creatures thrummed in her ears. Her loping steps seemed to carry her miles in an instant, the world an array of color and taste and sound around her. And under it all, the golden touch of the wolf god flowed like ichor in her veins. Where he led, she would follow. She would feast on the flesh of his enemies. She would see them broken under her hands.

As daylight slashed the purple sky with gold and palest blue, Lue stopped and sniffed the air. Her black hair lay matted against her back. Her eyes glimmered. Her lips, darkest red, drew back into a hungry smile.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] world below)
The Hanikwa County Friends of Jesus Pentecostal Sanctuary midweek services begin every Wednesday night at seven thirty on the dot. Hardy Quitman, the faithful choir director and only church member permitted to touch the platform's groaning old piano (a gift from the pastor's grandmother, a terrifying and particular woman of ninety-eight) slams into a double-time rendition of "Heaven's Jubilee," Tallulah Sloan outfitting the chorus with as many trills as humanly possible and Sister Lillie Jolene Anderson shouting hallelujahs on the front row. The routine is comfortable for the church congregation, a meager collection of fifty-four souls (not counting Sister Maggie Rooney's libertine niece, who only comes because Sister Maggie won't allow her to live at the house if she doesn't and who makes eyes at all the men during altar call), and as the minute hand slides toward seven thirty-five, their eyes turn expectantly to the platform door, from which the pastor will soon emerge.

At seven forty-one, there is a distinct shift in the praise-singing. Brother Hilburn is the source of the Sanctuary's oil-smooth punctuality, insistent on beginning precisely on time and never so much as a minute late to the pulpit. Though his singing abilities rank slightly below those of Laronda Mullins, whose off-key warbling can be heard from one side of the room to the other, the faithful have always taken comfort in his dedication to the praise service. Carrying on without him sets them reeling and before long, "I Have A Friend In Jesus" has taken on a distinctly sour note.

At seven forty-five, assistant pastor Sullivan Rockshell takes the pulpit, his usually immaculate pompadour sinking like a collapsed cake. Obediently the congregation turn in their Bibles to Acts 2:38, but their eyes shoot messages over the gilt-edge pages and Truetta Gibson can be heard hissing whispers near the back wall. Before Hardy Quitman begins to plunk out the trembling notes that signal ending prayers, at least fifteen theories have been formulated, spread, and rebutted by the church family, and there is an edge of panic in the air. Rodrick Swindal makes a valiant effort at tongues and interpretation to get everyone back on track, but his heart just isn't in it. Even Sister Lillie Jolene is quiet, her watery eyes sharp and nervous.

Church ends early that night, for the first time in a decade. The congregation return home, their hearts cold and unfulfilled.

At eight thirty-six, Terry Hilburn boards a nonstop flight to Miami. His white panama hat and brilliantly colored Hawaiian shirt draw a few stares, but he ignores them all with a smile. In his mind, he is already sitting on a beach chair on the deck of his new condo, a sweating bottle of Bud in his hand and some sweet little thing in a black bikini beside him. It has taken him ten years - ten years of tithes, offerings, garage sales and church fundraisers - to afford his dream, and now the time has come. Can they really say he is unfaithful, just because he sees God in tequila sunsets and barely-there beachwear, rather than in a book or a song or a crumbling church building? He doesn't think so.

"Please fasten your seatbelts."

Terry Hilburn winks at the blonde stewardess, buckles his seatbelt, and closes his eyes. Ten years, three Christian children, six affairs, and fifty-five church members (he does count Maggie Rooney's niece, and he'd do a lot more with her if he ever got the chance) in his way, but already those memories are fading. As the jet engines roar him into a blackening sky and a new life, Terry Hilburn hums a few bars of song.

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I'll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
when I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I'll fly away
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] world below)
The Hanikwa County Friends of Jesus Pentecostal Sanctuary midweek services begin every Wednesday night at seven thirty on the dot. Hardy Quitman, the faithful choir director and only church member permitted to touch the platform's groaning old piano (a gift from the pastor's grandmother, a terrifying and particular woman of ninety-eight) slams into a double-time rendition of "Heaven's Jubilee," Tallulah Sloan outfitting the chorus with as many trills as humanly possible and Sister Lillie Jolene Anderson shouting hallelujahs on the front row. The routine is comfortable for the church congregation, a meager collection of fifty-four souls (not counting Sister Maggie Rooney's libertine niece, who only comes because Sister Maggie won't allow her to live at the house if she doesn't and who makes eyes at all the men during altar call), and as the minute hand slides toward seven thirty-five, their eyes turn expectantly to the platform door, from which the pastor will soon emerge.

At seven forty-one, there is a distinct shift in the praise-singing. Brother Hilburn is the source of the Sanctuary's oil-smooth punctuality, insistent on beginning precisely on time and never so much as a minute late to the pulpit. Though his singing abilities rank slightly below those of Laronda Mullins, whose off-key warbling can be heard from one side of the room to the other, the faithful have always taken comfort in his dedication to the praise service. Carrying on without him sets them reeling and before long, "I Have A Friend In Jesus" has taken on a distinctly sour note.

At seven forty-five, assistant pastor Sullivan Rockshell takes the pulpit, his usually immaculate pompadour sinking like a collapsed cake. Obediently the congregation turn in their Bibles to Acts 2:38, but their eyes shoot messages over the gilt-edge pages and Truetta Gibson can be heard hissing whispers near the back wall. Before Hardy Quitman begins to plunk out the trembling notes that signal ending prayers, at least fifteen theories have been formulated, spread, and rebutted by the church family, and there is an edge of panic in the air. Rodrick Swindal makes a valiant effort at tongues and interpretation to get everyone back on track, but his heart just isn't in it. Even Sister Lillie Jolene is quiet, her watery eyes sharp and nervous.

Church ends early that night, for the first time in a decade. The congregation return home, their hearts cold and unfulfilled.

At eight thirty-six, Terry Hilburn boards a nonstop flight to Miami. His white panama hat and brilliantly colored Hawaiian shirt draw a few stares, but he ignores them all with a smile. In his mind, he is already sitting on a beach chair on the deck of his new condo, a sweating bottle of Bud in his hand and some sweet little thing in a black bikini beside him. It has taken him ten years - ten years of tithes, offerings, garage sales and church fundraisers - to afford his dream, and now the time has come. Can they really say he is unfaithful, just because he sees God in tequila sunsets and barely-there beachwear, rather than in a book or a song or a crumbling church building? He doesn't think so.

"Please fasten your seatbelts."

Terry Hilburn winks at the blonde stewardess, buckles his seatbelt, and closes his eyes. Ten years, three Christian children, six affairs, and fifty-five church members (he does count Maggie Rooney's niece, and he'd do a lot more with her if he ever got the chance) in his way, but already those memories are fading. As the jet engines roar him into a blackening sky and a new life, Terry Hilburn hums a few bars of song.

When the shadows of this life have gone,
I'll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown,
I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory
I'll fly away in the morning
when I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I'll fly away
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] lost)
The sky has been dark for five days. It is a greenish-gray mass of roiling cloud, sparking with light and shaking the rocks with its deep voice. Sometimes it sends a dust-laced wind ripping across the broken ground, and sometimes the air is thick and heavy and wet. The people wrap cloths around their mouths to keep out the dust and shade their eyes with their hands, looking hopefully upwards. Maybe praying, if they remember how.

And still the rain does not fall.

On the fifth day, Maritza crouches on top of the truck cab and watches, the rubber soles of her boots squeaking on the metal as she shifts her weight. In her left hand she balances her cracked plastic bowl, plucking small pieces of dried meat from it with her right. As she chews, she regards the storm. Down inside the rig, her mother is singing in a language she doesn't know, her soft voice rolling in and out of the wind like a secret call. Maritza wonders if she is singing to the rain, asking it to come down.

The storm is so big it is almost beyond her, a blanket of living darkness wrapped around the dry, ugly world. She wonders if it has been sent to help them, to soothe the thirst as the Olders believe, or if it has come to tear them apart. She doesn't know if she cares which. All she wants is the shattering, the opening, the fall.

"Hey girl, get down offa there!" It is the driver, his scarred face jutting up at her like a fist. "Get your goddamned dirty feet offa my truck!"

The truck is grimed with dust and dirt and Maritza's boots are clean, but she complies. She hates the driver, but has felt his anger across her back too many times to defy him. She is only thirteen and small, made bird-boned with lack of food. He is a big man and he always takes the best for himself. It does not take much for him to leave scars of his own.

She supposes the driver is probably her father, just as he is probably the father of the other children who ride in their rig - some older and thin like her, others small and swell-bellied, with drooping eyes and white tongues. She hates him anyway. Hates his cracked-toothed smile, his meaty hands, and the way the women in their rig cower before him, like being near him is the most loathsome thing in their lives besides dying. Unfortunately for them, dying is their only other choice.

Maritza's mother is still singing when she climbs into the rig. The driver starts the engine, and around them she can hear the roar of the caravan coming to life. Most of the others drive rigs like theirs, but some are in smaller trucks with tarps and tents stretched over their beds, and some even follow on motorbikes, their possessions strapped precariously behind them. There are so few of them now, only fifty in all.

The women in the rig stretch a large patched cloth over the open back of the compartment to keep out the dust, and the weak daylight filters through the fabric in a dozen colors. Around her Maritza can make out the rumpled pallets and nailed-down chairs and meager, broken belongings of the rest of her "family," and she curls her lip and sits as near the back as her mother will let her. The place stinks of sweat and mold and bad breath, and Maritza hates it. Sometimes she dreams of running away, of leaping from the back of the rig like a falling star, bounding off into the endless stretch of land and sky.

Then her mother smiles at her in the semi-darkness, and she knows she never will.

Her mother's name is Gisela, and even in such places as this, she is beautiful. The stark lines of her face are proud and regal, like the princesses from the stories she tells the children, but her eyes are brown and soft. They are always softest when she looks at Maritza, when she murmurs, "mija" and strokes her hair. And Maritza loves her, her and no one else, though she has never understood what it means to love or why she feels this way. All she knows is that her mother is the scope of her world, the compass around which she turns. She would never leave her mother.

Gisela says, "We will be there soon, mija. The great river." For this is where they are going, a river that Gisela remembers from when she was a girl. There they will drink and make a new life, a new world.

All the other rivers they have passed have dried, but Gisela knows that this one is still flowing. "It was the river of my new life once," she says, her brown eyes implacable, "and it will be again. I know it."

And so they followed her into the driest wastes, the broken lands, and constant as a star she has led them. And now, she says, soon.

Barely any time at all has passed when the truck rumbles to a stop. Behind them, Maritza can hear cries of confusion as the other vehicles do the same, pillars of dust rising into the air around them. The door of the cab slams, and Maritza can sense the driver stomping toward them, his anger a pillar all its own, even if she can't hear his boots on the dirt.

The cloth covering is ripped away. The children shriek, if they are not too weak, and the women turn empty eyes toward his twisted face.

"Where the fuck," he says, breathing through his nose, "are we?" This last is almost a guttural scream, and his large hand thrusts out and wraps around her mother's wrist. Gisela does not cry out as she is dragged from the truck. Maritza leaps after her, a wild burst of fury shooting from her belly to her fingertips.

"We've been driving through this hell for weeks!" The driver is shaking Maritza's mother, his teeth bared like an animal's. Around them, the caravan watches, not one of them bold enough to intervene. They know it is like this in the driver's rig - perhaps it is the same in their own. They will not stop it. They never do.

"When are we going to get there!" Spit flies from his mouth and flecks Gisela's face. Maritza realizes that the driver has been into the bottle he keeps in his cab, that his mouth is dry and his head buzzing. He is thirsty and stupid and mean, and he will hit her mother, in front of everyone, and no one will tell him not to.

With a scream of her own, a storm-sound ripped from within the darkest place of her, she is on him. Her small fingers dig into his hair, pulling it back, her teeth find purchase on his forearm. Again and again her boots kick against his flesh, and lights burn white-hot and blinding in her eyes. The driver yelps and shakes her - once, twice, and she is off him, the taste of blood in her mouth. When his fist slams against her head, she drops like a stone.

The world is slanted and swirling. Gisela moves through it, her dark hair flying, a star in her hand. It slashes up, buries itself in the driver's neck. Then there is blood, a great gout of it. It stains Gisela's dress, but she does not step away. She holds her head up, a vengeful princess - a queen. They all stare back at her.

Maritza feels her hands pulling upwards, lifting her. As they pass, the women pull the fabric up over the open mouth of the rig, and Maritza cannot see their eyes. Gisela opens the door to the cab, and pushes Maritza into the seat. There is a moment of nothing, a flash of darkness, and then the engine comes to life. Her mother's fingers stroke her hair, and the world begins to move.

"We will be there soon, mija," she says, and Maritza knows her thin hands guide the wheel. She hears the others following, falling into a ragged line behind. And then, faintly at first, the sound of water on the roof.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] lost)
The sky has been dark for five days. It is a greenish-gray mass of roiling cloud, sparking with light and shaking the rocks with its deep voice. Sometimes it sends a dust-laced wind ripping across the broken ground, and sometimes the air is thick and heavy and wet. The people wrap cloths around their mouths to keep out the dust and shade their eyes with their hands, looking hopefully upwards. Maybe praying, if they remember how.

And still the rain does not fall.

On the fifth day, Maritza crouches on top of the truck cab and watches, the rubber soles of her boots squeaking on the metal as she shifts her weight. In her left hand she balances her cracked plastic bowl, plucking small pieces of dried meat from it with her right. As she chews, she regards the storm. Down inside the rig, her mother is singing in a language she doesn't know, her soft voice rolling in and out of the wind like a secret call. Maritza wonders if she is singing to the rain, asking it to come down.

The storm is so big it is almost beyond her, a blanket of living darkness wrapped around the dry, ugly world. She wonders if it has been sent to help them, to soothe the thirst as the Olders believe, or if it has come to tear them apart. She doesn't know if she cares which. All she wants is the shattering, the opening, the fall.

"Hey girl, get down offa there!" It is the driver, his scarred face jutting up at her like a fist. "Get your goddamned dirty feet offa my truck!"

The truck is grimed with dust and dirt and Maritza's boots are clean, but she complies. She hates the driver, but has felt his anger across her back too many times to defy him. She is only thirteen and small, made bird-boned with lack of food. He is a big man and he always takes the best for himself. It does not take much for him to leave scars of his own.

She supposes the driver is probably her father, just as he is probably the father of the other children who ride in their rig - some older and thin like her, others small and swell-bellied, with drooping eyes and white tongues. She hates him anyway. Hates his cracked-toothed smile, his meaty hands, and the way the women in their rig cower before him, like being near him is the most loathsome thing in their lives besides dying. Unfortunately for them, dying is their only other choice.

Maritza's mother is still singing when she climbs into the rig. The driver starts the engine, and around them she can hear the roar of the caravan coming to life. Most of the others drive rigs like theirs, but some are in smaller trucks with tarps and tents stretched over their beds, and some even follow on motorbikes, their possessions strapped precariously behind them. There are so few of them now, only fifty in all.

The women in the rig stretch a large patched cloth over the open back of the compartment to keep out the dust, and the weak daylight filters through the fabric in a dozen colors. Around her Maritza can make out the rumpled pallets and nailed-down chairs and meager, broken belongings of the rest of her "family," and she curls her lip and sits as near the back as her mother will let her. The place stinks of sweat and mold and bad breath, and Maritza hates it. Sometimes she dreams of running away, of leaping from the back of the rig like a falling star, bounding off into the endless stretch of land and sky.

Then her mother smiles at her in the semi-darkness, and she knows she never will.

Her mother's name is Gisela, and even in such places as this, she is beautiful. The stark lines of her face are proud and regal, like the princesses from the stories she tells the children, but her eyes are brown and soft. They are always softest when she looks at Maritza, when she murmurs, "mija" and strokes her hair. And Maritza loves her, her and no one else, though she has never understood what it means to love or why she feels this way. All she knows is that her mother is the scope of her world, the compass around which she turns. She would never leave her mother.

Gisela says, "We will be there soon, mija. The great river." For this is where they are going, a river that Gisela remembers from when she was a girl. There they will drink and make a new life, a new world.

All the other rivers they have passed have dried, but Gisela knows that this one is still flowing. "It was the river of my new life once," she says, her brown eyes implacable, "and it will be again. I know it."

And so they followed her into the driest wastes, the broken lands, and constant as a star she has led them. And now, she says, soon.

Barely any time at all has passed when the truck rumbles to a stop. Behind them, Maritza can hear cries of confusion as the other vehicles do the same, pillars of dust rising into the air around them. The door of the cab slams, and Maritza can sense the driver stomping toward them, his anger a pillar all its own, even if she can't hear his boots on the dirt.

The cloth covering is ripped away. The children shriek, if they are not too weak, and the women turn empty eyes toward his twisted face.

"Where the fuck," he says, breathing through his nose, "are we?" This last is almost a guttural scream, and his large hand thrusts out and wraps around her mother's wrist. Gisela does not cry out as she is dragged from the truck. Maritza leaps after her, a wild burst of fury shooting from her belly to her fingertips.

"We've been driving through this hell for weeks!" The driver is shaking Maritza's mother, his teeth bared like an animal's. Around them, the caravan watches, not one of them bold enough to intervene. They know it is like this in the driver's rig - perhaps it is the same in their own. They will not stop it. They never do.

"When are we going to get there!" Spit flies from his mouth and flecks Gisela's face. Maritza realizes that the driver has been into the bottle he keeps in his cab, that his mouth is dry and his head buzzing. He is thirsty and stupid and mean, and he will hit her mother, in front of everyone, and no one will tell him not to.

With a scream of her own, a storm-sound ripped from within the darkest place of her, she is on him. Her small fingers dig into his hair, pulling it back, her teeth find purchase on his forearm. Again and again her boots kick against his flesh, and lights burn white-hot and blinding in her eyes. The driver yelps and shakes her - once, twice, and she is off him, the taste of blood in her mouth. When his fist slams against her head, she drops like a stone.

The world is slanted and swirling. Gisela moves through it, her dark hair flying, a star in her hand. It slashes up, buries itself in the driver's neck. Then there is blood, a great gout of it. It stains Gisela's dress, but she does not step away. She holds her head up, a vengeful princess - a queen. They all stare back at her.

Maritza feels her hands pulling upwards, lifting her. As they pass, the women pull the fabric up over the open mouth of the rig, and Maritza cannot see their eyes. Gisela opens the door to the cab, and pushes Maritza into the seat. There is a moment of nothing, a flash of darkness, and then the engine comes to life. Her mother's fingers stroke her hair, and the world begins to move.

"We will be there soon, mija," she says, and Maritza knows her thin hands guide the wheel. She hears the others following, falling into a ragged line behind. And then, faintly at first, the sound of water on the roof.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] it will be ok)
My boss was the kind of guy who liked to see people sweat. It was somehow deeply fulfilling for him, and he never seemed to get tired of it. He was knocking people down pegs all day long, but he always had time for one more. Everyone in the building was terrified of him, and nobody was more terrified than me.

I was the intern, the low man on the totem pole, and as far as my boss was concerned, a newly-birthed lamb to be fattened for slaughter. He didn't cut me down with the same snakelike swiftness he used on various coworkers, but I knew it was because he had something much worse in mind for me. I was like a psychology science project, and he put so many twists in my brain during the first few weeks of my internship that I was surprised I could even find my way out of the building at the end of the day (and who knows, maybe that was part of his plan - maybe he regularly sent interns into the labyrinthine passages of the accounts department in hopes that they would be devoured by some kind of modern-age minotaur in a tribute of blood so he could keep his ergonomic throne).

Despite several near-breakdowns and many nights spent desperately gripping beer bottles in some warped semblance of relaxation, I was determined not to be just another poor, shattered shell of an intern. No, he wouldn't break me - I would be the one who withstood the many slings and arrows of internship, the cheese that stood alone, and in the end he would respect me. It became something of an elaborate psychological game, with him gradually upping the stakes while I gritted my teeth harder and harder through each successive work day.

I started each work day at the coffee shop across the street from my building, and made several successive visits throughout the morning as part of my boss's daily warm-up bout. It became kind of a routine for me to buy an armload of coffees for my boss and his upper tier cronies (each of whom had a laundry list of specifications for their brew), only to be sent back at least three times due to mistakes (even though I dutifully wrote down every order). At first this was just yet another tooth-grinding test of my sanity but then... I met Marnie.

When I say I met Marnie, I mean that she was hired to work at the coffee shop and I tried my best not to stare avidly at her whenever I was on the property. She was short and curvy, with a large amount of dark curly hair and big brown eyes behind purple rectangular glasses. She seemed to regard everyone who passed before her counter as a kind of character study, and every time her curious eyes passed across me I tried not to swallow my tongue.

I was about as in love with her as any guy can be with a woman to whom he has spoken only of coffee. Of course, I wanted to speak to her about other things, but I could never quite work up the nerve. She didn't look like the type of woman who would be interested in barely post-collegiate guys who regularly visited her place of work in between intervals of licking their boss's sociopathic boots. She looked like she probably dated guitarists. Or writers. Or cage fighters.

In the end, she talked to me first. "You sure are in here a lot," she said. My knees went watery. She might as well have said, "You sure are the handsomest hunk of man I've ever seen ordering a double whip white chocolate mocha in my life."

"Yeah," I said, in a stunning show of wit.

"Are you like, the coffee boy or something?"

I closed my eyes and tried not to let the vertigo take me out. The coffee boy! The coffee boy was below even sycophantic boot licker in the office hierarchy.

"Sorry," she said, and I opened my eyes to catch her mid-wince. "I guess that was rude."

"No, no," I reassured her, even though it kind of had been rude. She hadn't meant it, I knew - under her barista apron she was wearing a t-shirt for the local SPCA. Obviously she was a generous and kind-hearted person. "I guess it probably seems that way."

"Kind of. You're in here at least three times every morning ordering coffees. Either you're buying coffees for an entire floor of that building over there, or you've got a serious crush on me." She smiled - she was kidding. I laughed weakly.

"Yeah, ha ha, well, my boss... it's just kind of a thing he does. Like a game. The coffee thing is part of it."

"What kind of game?"

This was not going to end well for me. "He, ah, likes to play with people. People's minds."

"You mean he likes to play with your mind. I don't see anyone else in here ordering fifteen coffees every day."

"Well, everyone gets it some way or another, but I'm just the intern."

"If you ask me," she said, "you sound like the doormat, not the intern." This was not the kind of conversation that led to my getting her number, I knew, or asking her out, or getting to see her in anything besides her barista apron, but it was more than, "three eighty-five, please," so I thought I would take it. "Also, your boss sounds like a dick."

Before I knew it, I was spilling my guts about all of the things my boss had done to me. Somehow, Marnie actually seemed interested in it all, and by the time I was done with my tale of woe, she was shaking her head sadly on my behalf. Again, I knew that sympathy was not usually the foundation for a long and loving relationship, but it was the best I could do and I was happy for it.

"You can't keep this up, you know," she said finally. "You're going to crack. Nobody could deal with that every day."

"There are people who have been there for years."

"Yeah, but they're getting paid, aren't they?"

As I rode the elevator back up to my boss's office five minutes later, juggling six cardboard cups filled with weapons-grade heated coffee, I realized that Marnie was probably right. Not because she was beautiful and I loved her (though I admitted that such things might factor in somehow), but because I was already starting to sense the hairline fractures in my psyche that would soon lead to total meltdown.

And that meltdown, it seemed, was closer than I thought. After I had dropped off all the coffees to my smirking coworkers, my boss called me into his office. He was turning a softball over and over in his hands, a relic from a former inter-office softball championship (I'm pretty sure nobody would have ever attempted to actually beat his team, even if he had staffed it entirely with geriatrics and puppies). He looked at me with his snakey little eyes and didn't ask me to sit. The faceted paperweight on the corner of his desk cast swirling shadows of light across his face.

"Mr..." he paused.

"Fisher," I supplied.

"Mr. Fisher. You've been with us now for some months, isn't that right?"

"Yes, sir."

"And on your application for this internship, you expressed an interest in working for this company in the future, isn't that right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Based on that, well, enthusiasm, we took you on board in...," he shuffled some papers on his desk, "June of this year. Unfortunately," and he fixed me with a laser-sharp glare, "you have not performed in a manner that suggests that you actually are interested in employment with this company once your internship ends."

"Excuse me, sir?" The floor seemed to be shifting under my feet. This was new. I hadn't expected this.

"Fisher, I hate to say that you're incompetent, because I'm sure you're a very intelligent boy, but I just haven't seen that in this office. In fact, it seems like you've been going out of your way to avoid being in the office at all."

I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn't called out sick - not once! I had never shown up late, or left early. "What do you mean, sir?"

"Well, Fisher, it's these little runs to the coffee shop."

My stomach sank like a stone. I could see where he was going with this now. He continued, a tiny smile playing at the corners of his thin mouth. "You spend half the morning in there. Now I'm not sure if it's because you simply can't figure out how to order the correct coffees or because you want to waste time, but frankly, neither of these are acceptable in this office. If this continues, I will have to cut short your internship with us, and I'm sure you wouldn't want that, now would you?"

It was a trap, and a masterful one. If I wanted to stay with the company, I would have to stop making so many trips to the shop, and if I was ejected from my internship, I'd look like an idiot. Unfortunately, I knew all too well that he and his minions would never stop with the complicated coffee orders and continual insistence that I'd made a mistake.

I was screwed. I could either suck it up and try desperately to find my footing on a sinking ship, or I could do something insane.

---

"I think I threw a paperweight at his head," I admitted. She raised her eyebrows at me, and I wasn't sure if she was impressed or quietly mortified. "There was some glass, anyway. I think I missed - he was still conscious when they dragged me out, and it was a big paperweight. I'm pretty sure that if it had made contact, he would have been at least mildly concussed."

Marnie stared at me. I was standing in front of her counter again, my jacket rumpled and my tie askew. I'm sure I must have looked completely out of my mind.

"So," she said after a moment. "Do you maybe want to go get lunch somewhere?"






*This is a work of fiction. I am not a man, not in love with a barista, and have never thrown a paperweight at my boss's head (even when he deserved it).
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([pretty] it will be ok)
My boss was the kind of guy who liked to see people sweat. It was somehow deeply fulfilling for him, and he never seemed to get tired of it. He was knocking people down pegs all day long, but he always had time for one more. Everyone in the building was terrified of him, and nobody was more terrified than me.

I was the intern, the low man on the totem pole, and as far as my boss was concerned, a newly-birthed lamb to be fattened for slaughter. He didn't cut me down with the same snakelike swiftness he used on various coworkers, but I knew it was because he had something much worse in mind for me. I was like a psychology science project, and he put so many twists in my brain during the first few weeks of my internship that I was surprised I could even find my way out of the building at the end of the day (and who knows, maybe that was part of his plan - maybe he regularly sent interns into the labyrinthine passages of the accounts department in hopes that they would be devoured by some kind of modern-age minotaur in a tribute of blood so he could keep his ergonomic throne).

Despite several near-breakdowns and many nights spent desperately gripping beer bottles in some warped semblance of relaxation, I was determined not to be just another poor, shattered shell of an intern. No, he wouldn't break me - I would be the one who withstood the many slings and arrows of internship, the cheese that stood alone, and in the end he would respect me. It became something of an elaborate psychological game, with him gradually upping the stakes while I gritted my teeth harder and harder through each successive work day.

I started each work day at the coffee shop across the street from my building, and made several successive visits throughout the morning as part of my boss's daily warm-up bout. It became kind of a routine for me to buy an armload of coffees for my boss and his upper tier cronies (each of whom had a laundry list of specifications for their brew), only to be sent back at least three times due to mistakes (even though I dutifully wrote down every order). At first this was just yet another tooth-grinding test of my sanity but then... I met Marnie.

When I say I met Marnie, I mean that she was hired to work at the coffee shop and I tried my best not to stare avidly at her whenever I was on the property. She was short and curvy, with a large amount of dark curly hair and big brown eyes behind purple rectangular glasses. She seemed to regard everyone who passed before her counter as a kind of character study, and every time her curious eyes passed across me I tried not to swallow my tongue.

I was about as in love with her as any guy can be with a woman to whom he has spoken only of coffee. Of course, I wanted to speak to her about other things, but I could never quite work up the nerve. She didn't look like the type of woman who would be interested in barely post-collegiate guys who regularly visited her place of work in between intervals of licking their boss's sociopathic boots. She looked like she probably dated guitarists. Or writers. Or cage fighters.

In the end, she talked to me first. "You sure are in here a lot," she said. My knees went watery. She might as well have said, "You sure are the handsomest hunk of man I've ever seen ordering a double whip white chocolate mocha in my life."

"Yeah," I said, in a stunning show of wit.

"Are you like, the coffee boy or something?"

I closed my eyes and tried not to let the vertigo take me out. The coffee boy! The coffee boy was below even sycophantic boot licker in the office hierarchy.

"Sorry," she said, and I opened my eyes to catch her mid-wince. "I guess that was rude."

"No, no," I reassured her, even though it kind of had been rude. She hadn't meant it, I knew - under her barista apron she was wearing a t-shirt for the local SPCA. Obviously she was a generous and kind-hearted person. "I guess it probably seems that way."

"Kind of. You're in here at least three times every morning ordering coffees. Either you're buying coffees for an entire floor of that building over there, or you've got a serious crush on me." She smiled - she was kidding. I laughed weakly.

"Yeah, ha ha, well, my boss... it's just kind of a thing he does. Like a game. The coffee thing is part of it."

"What kind of game?"

This was not going to end well for me. "He, ah, likes to play with people. People's minds."

"You mean he likes to play with your mind. I don't see anyone else in here ordering fifteen coffees every day."

"Well, everyone gets it some way or another, but I'm just the intern."

"If you ask me," she said, "you sound like the doormat, not the intern." This was not the kind of conversation that led to my getting her number, I knew, or asking her out, or getting to see her in anything besides her barista apron, but it was more than, "three eighty-five, please," so I thought I would take it. "Also, your boss sounds like a dick."

Before I knew it, I was spilling my guts about all of the things my boss had done to me. Somehow, Marnie actually seemed interested in it all, and by the time I was done with my tale of woe, she was shaking her head sadly on my behalf. Again, I knew that sympathy was not usually the foundation for a long and loving relationship, but it was the best I could do and I was happy for it.

"You can't keep this up, you know," she said finally. "You're going to crack. Nobody could deal with that every day."

"There are people who have been there for years."

"Yeah, but they're getting paid, aren't they?"

As I rode the elevator back up to my boss's office five minutes later, juggling six cardboard cups filled with weapons-grade heated coffee, I realized that Marnie was probably right. Not because she was beautiful and I loved her (though I admitted that such things might factor in somehow), but because I was already starting to sense the hairline fractures in my psyche that would soon lead to total meltdown.

And that meltdown, it seemed, was closer than I thought. After I had dropped off all the coffees to my smirking coworkers, my boss called me into his office. He was turning a softball over and over in his hands, a relic from a former inter-office softball championship (I'm pretty sure nobody would have ever attempted to actually beat his team, even if he had staffed it entirely with geriatrics and puppies). He looked at me with his snakey little eyes and didn't ask me to sit. The faceted paperweight on the corner of his desk cast swirling shadows of light across his face.

"Mr..." he paused.

"Fisher," I supplied.

"Mr. Fisher. You've been with us now for some months, isn't that right?"

"Yes, sir."

"And on your application for this internship, you expressed an interest in working for this company in the future, isn't that right?"

"Yes, sir."

"Based on that, well, enthusiasm, we took you on board in...," he shuffled some papers on his desk, "June of this year. Unfortunately," and he fixed me with a laser-sharp glare, "you have not performed in a manner that suggests that you actually are interested in employment with this company once your internship ends."

"Excuse me, sir?" The floor seemed to be shifting under my feet. This was new. I hadn't expected this.

"Fisher, I hate to say that you're incompetent, because I'm sure you're a very intelligent boy, but I just haven't seen that in this office. In fact, it seems like you've been going out of your way to avoid being in the office at all."

I had no idea what he was talking about. I hadn't called out sick - not once! I had never shown up late, or left early. "What do you mean, sir?"

"Well, Fisher, it's these little runs to the coffee shop."

My stomach sank like a stone. I could see where he was going with this now. He continued, a tiny smile playing at the corners of his thin mouth. "You spend half the morning in there. Now I'm not sure if it's because you simply can't figure out how to order the correct coffees or because you want to waste time, but frankly, neither of these are acceptable in this office. If this continues, I will have to cut short your internship with us, and I'm sure you wouldn't want that, now would you?"

It was a trap, and a masterful one. If I wanted to stay with the company, I would have to stop making so many trips to the shop, and if I was ejected from my internship, I'd look like an idiot. Unfortunately, I knew all too well that he and his minions would never stop with the complicated coffee orders and continual insistence that I'd made a mistake.

I was screwed. I could either suck it up and try desperately to find my footing on a sinking ship, or I could do something insane.

---

"I think I threw a paperweight at his head," I admitted. She raised her eyebrows at me, and I wasn't sure if she was impressed or quietly mortified. "There was some glass, anyway. I think I missed - he was still conscious when they dragged me out, and it was a big paperweight. I'm pretty sure that if it had made contact, he would have been at least mildly concussed."

Marnie stared at me. I was standing in front of her counter again, my jacket rumpled and my tie askew. I'm sure I must have looked completely out of my mind.

"So," she said after a moment. "Do you maybe want to go get lunch somewhere?"






*This is a work of fiction. I am not a man, not in love with a barista, and have never thrown a paperweight at my boss's head (even when he deserved it).
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([art] red bird heart)
The streets in this place no longer have names. They stumble over each other, crowned with the shattered remains of the empire that once stood here, a crumbling diadem of glass and steel. Emaciated, rag-wrapped people creep through the twisted skeletons of towers, rifling through drifts of rubbish for a scrap of food. The sun cracks them, the hunger breaks them, and they all fall soon enough, these child-eyed beggars that refuse to abandon the ruin of their former glory.

And somewhere among them, tucked into the darkest corner or disguised as a shred of wind-flapped cloth, is the Bone Man.

The Bone Man has been here since the beginning. Maybe even before that, if the whispers that chase each other around night fires are true. The Bone Man does not crawl through the trash or chew his sores or lie in the dust and wait for the slow sleep of death to take him. The Bone Man struts through the midden like a prince and smiles, smiles, always smiles. His white teeth gleam in the burning sun and his skin is tight as a mummy's, his skull and tall bones clear through the wrapping. The people know that he is not like them, and they fear him and love him because of it.

And so some days when the Bone Man takes one of them away, always the best of them, they do not stop him. It is an honor to be chosen, for the Bone Man never chooses the lazy or the weak. Some days the Bone Man chooses the strong, some days the charming, some days the beautiful, and some days the wise. He smiles at them and reaches out his thin dry hand and takes them away. To a better place, the people say, and secretly they long to see it. To be chosen. To be loved by the Bone Man.

He has been here since the beginning, they tell each other on these occasions. He knows what is right.

And when the Bone Man returns, always alone, he tells them stories. Beautiful stories of towers that scrape the sky, cities that never sleep, and people that fly through the air.

And he says, One day these things will come again. You will tell your children what I have told you, and they will tell their children, and one day the beautiful things will be made again.

And the people sigh and smile and forget their worries, and in their hearts they love the Bone Man even more. Yes, the Bone Man knows what must be done.

And when the Bone Man takes their children or lovers or parents they know it is right. It's part of his plan, they say.

And would they stop him, even if they knew? If they knew he took the chosen ones and smiled at them and took their gifts, drinking the blood in their veins until their mouths drew back and their hearts pumped only air? If they knew he stole the beauty, the charisma, the wisdom, the strength and stored it away inside his ancient body, spinning only pieces of it into his stories to seduce them? If they knew the love they had for him was the love they had for the lost?

But they do not know. The Bone Man nests in their dreams like a spider, manipulating the strands of their pitiful lives to suit his purpose, as he has always done.

The beautiful things. The cities, the lights, the streets teeming with fattened flesh and hopes and promise and power. He remembers them well. Remembers the corruption of them, the greed and lust and hatred of them.

I will see them again, he says to the night, his mouth full of the taste of blood. I will rebuild them, create them just as they were. And he smiles his bone-white smile, and dreams his own dreams, while the people tell his stories to each other, again and again.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([art] red bird heart)
The streets in this place no longer have names. They stumble over each other, crowned with the shattered remains of the empire that once stood here, a crumbling diadem of glass and steel. Emaciated, rag-wrapped people creep through the twisted skeletons of towers, rifling through drifts of rubbish for a scrap of food. The sun cracks them, the hunger breaks them, and they all fall soon enough, these child-eyed beggars that refuse to abandon the ruin of their former glory.

And somewhere among them, tucked into the darkest corner or disguised as a shred of wind-flapped cloth, is the Bone Man.

The Bone Man has been here since the beginning. Maybe even before that, if the whispers that chase each other around night fires are true. The Bone Man does not crawl through the trash or chew his sores or lie in the dust and wait for the slow sleep of death to take him. The Bone Man struts through the midden like a prince and smiles, smiles, always smiles. His white teeth gleam in the burning sun and his skin is tight as a mummy's, his skull and tall bones clear through the wrapping. The people know that he is not like them, and they fear him and love him because of it.

And so some days when the Bone Man takes one of them away, always the best of them, they do not stop him. It is an honor to be chosen, for the Bone Man never chooses the lazy or the weak. Some days the Bone Man chooses the strong, some days the charming, some days the beautiful, and some days the wise. He smiles at them and reaches out his thin dry hand and takes them away. To a better place, the people say, and secretly they long to see it. To be chosen. To be loved by the Bone Man.

He has been here since the beginning, they tell each other on these occasions. He knows what is right.

And when the Bone Man returns, always alone, he tells them stories. Beautiful stories of towers that scrape the sky, cities that never sleep, and people that fly through the air.

And he says, One day these things will come again. You will tell your children what I have told you, and they will tell their children, and one day the beautiful things will be made again.

And the people sigh and smile and forget their worries, and in their hearts they love the Bone Man even more. Yes, the Bone Man knows what must be done.

And when the Bone Man takes their children or lovers or parents they know it is right. It's part of his plan, they say.

And would they stop him, even if they knew? If they knew he took the chosen ones and smiled at them and took their gifts, drinking the blood in their veins until their mouths drew back and their hearts pumped only air? If they knew he stole the beauty, the charisma, the wisdom, the strength and stored it away inside his ancient body, spinning only pieces of it into his stories to seduce them? If they knew the love they had for him was the love they had for the lost?

But they do not know. The Bone Man nests in their dreams like a spider, manipulating the strands of their pitiful lives to suit his purpose, as he has always done.

The beautiful things. The cities, the lights, the streets teeming with fattened flesh and hopes and promise and power. He remembers them well. Remembers the corruption of them, the greed and lust and hatred of them.

I will see them again, he says to the night, his mouth full of the taste of blood. I will rebuild them, create them just as they were. And he smiles his bone-white smile, and dreams his own dreams, while the people tell his stories to each other, again and again.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([sex] red lips)
She is a tall, thin woman with aggressive collar bones, perfectly appointed jewelry, and nary a stray thread or wandering bit of lint marring the flawless column of her cream-colored designer suit. Her tan is the seamless teak that can only be achieved by regular nude sunbathing on private beaches in exotic locales, and monthly injections of Botox keep her skin youthfully taut. Highlights and lowlights in varying golden hues glint in the starbursts of light issuing from cameras below, and her teeth dazzle as the sensuous red mouth moves in unheard conversation with a dark-suited cohort. Caught in a storm of light and sound, she mounts the platform with helpless grace, beautiful even in her distress.

And across the nation we fix our eyes to her pixelized face and think, "Oh no, oh no, oh no," and, "Look how beautiful she is, even in the middle of it all!" And when the tears swim majestically in her thick-lashed eyes, our hearts wrench pitifully for this glorious woman and the injustices wrought upon her. Like marionettes we swing and tap and dance to her tune, our mouths stretched wide with protest. "That bastard!" we cry. "How dare he!" And he is a bastard, this is true. A bastard spawning bastards, if the whispers and websites can be believed. The greasiest sort of politician after all - he had us fooled! And here she is, so lovely, so wronged.

But shh, what will she say? Shut up, shut up, I want to hear! You do not need to open a bag of Doritos rightthisverysecond, just shut up and listen!

Tremulous, she gazes into the crowd; a media martyr, the latest in a long line of gorgeous broken marriages. Her husband didn't seem the sort, but who can ever tell? Pajama bottoms only barely grazing the couch cushions, we hang on the silence, waiting for confirmation. Hoping, secretly, for condemnation. Like carrion crows we feast on the corpse of their romantic fantasy, our eyes gleaming expectantly for more.

But what's this? The usual we-hope-you-will-respect-our-privacy-in-this-trying-time bullshit? What?! Furious, we storm and rage. Amid our fruitless curses she descends the stairs, her jaw strung tight and her back set straight. We barely notice. Drained and disappointed, we open the Doritos and flick the channel. In moments she is forgotten.

And somewhere, beyond the screens and flashes and lookers-on, she slides into a waiting car and smiles at the driver. The dark-suited man climbs in behind her.

"The airport, I think," she purrs, her fingers on the knee of the dark suit. "I haven't been to Greece in so long. But take the long way. There's more than one place I haven't visited in years." And as the car glides away, her fingers glide along an inner thigh and things begin to look up.
applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([sex] red lips)
She is a tall, thin woman with aggressive collar bones, perfectly appointed jewelry, and nary a stray thread or wandering bit of lint marring the flawless column of her cream-colored designer suit. Her tan is the seamless teak that can only be achieved by regular nude sunbathing on private beaches in exotic locales, and monthly injections of Botox keep her skin youthfully taut. Highlights and lowlights in varying golden hues glint in the starbursts of light issuing from cameras below, and her teeth dazzle as the sensuous red mouth moves in unheard conversation with a dark-suited cohort. Caught in a storm of light and sound, she mounts the platform with helpless grace, beautiful even in her distress.

And across the nation we fix our eyes to her pixelized face and think, "Oh no, oh no, oh no," and, "Look how beautiful she is, even in the middle of it all!" And when the tears swim majestically in her thick-lashed eyes, our hearts wrench pitifully for this glorious woman and the injustices wrought upon her. Like marionettes we swing and tap and dance to her tune, our mouths stretched wide with protest. "That bastard!" we cry. "How dare he!" And he is a bastard, this is true. A bastard spawning bastards, if the whispers and websites can be believed. The greasiest sort of politician after all - he had us fooled! And here she is, so lovely, so wronged.

But shh, what will she say? Shut up, shut up, I want to hear! You do not need to open a bag of Doritos rightthisverysecond, just shut up and listen!

Tremulous, she gazes into the crowd; a media martyr, the latest in a long line of gorgeous broken marriages. Her husband didn't seem the sort, but who can ever tell? Pajama bottoms only barely grazing the couch cushions, we hang on the silence, waiting for confirmation. Hoping, secretly, for condemnation. Like carrion crows we feast on the corpse of their romantic fantasy, our eyes gleaming expectantly for more.

But what's this? The usual we-hope-you-will-respect-our-privacy-in-this-trying-time bullshit? What?! Furious, we storm and rage. Amid our fruitless curses she descends the stairs, her jaw strung tight and her back set straight. We barely notice. Drained and disappointed, we open the Doritos and flick the channel. In moments she is forgotten.

And somewhere, beyond the screens and flashes and lookers-on, she slides into a waiting car and smiles at the driver. The dark-suited man climbs in behind her.

"The airport, I think," she purrs, her fingers on the knee of the dark suit. "I haven't been to Greece in so long. But take the long way. There's more than one place I haven't visited in years." And as the car glides away, her fingers glide along an inner thigh and things begin to look up.

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How About Them Apples?

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