Dr. John Watson and “The Adventure of the Burning Man”

sherlock-300x444Mocha Memoirs Press and editor A.C. Thompson have done another anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories with a paranormal twist, Curious Incidents: More Improbable Adventures, and I have a story in it! The theme this time was any time or place EXCEPT Victorian London, and most of the stories have a definite science fiction double feature flair—steampunk, Weird Wild West, dystopian futures, pure stark screaming horror. But mine, “The Adventure of the Burning Man,” is a classic 1940s-style noir set in Los Angeles. And I guess the biggest twist on the usual canon (other than the Nazi fire demon) is that Dr. John Watson is black.

african-americans-wwii-042In this version, both Holmes and Watson are veterans of World War II, and Watson was one of the more than 19,000 men and women of color attached to the US Army’s Medical Department. Primary source information on the specifics of their service is thin on the ground—a stronger historian than me really should write a book on the subject because it’s fascinating, and there’s a definite gap to be filled. Racist segregation was rampant in the MD the same as everywhere else, particularly early in the USA’s involvement in the war, and most black medical personnel apparently worked as ambulance drivers and medics or in “sanitary companies,” regardless of their medical training. But there were some segregated hospital units with black doctors and nurses for black wounded soldiers. The picture above is from the National Archives: “Captain Ezekia Smith, 370th Infantry Regiment, 92nd Division, receives treatment at the 317th Collecting Station, for shell fragments in face and shoulders suffered near Querceta, Italy.” February 10, 1945.  Bull. 111-SC-236685 (african_americans_wwii_042.jpg). In my story, Dr. Watson started the war driving an ambulance in North Africa and ended it as a field surgeon in France. Now he’s running his own small medical practice on the first floor of a seedy L.A. office building also occupied by a certain English consulting detective.

Curious Incidents is available now from Amazon as a Kindle e-book and in print through Mocha Memoirs Press. And here’s an excerpt, the opening of “The Adventure of the Burning Man:”

 

For Watson, it started with the girl.

He had just locked up the clinic for the night and was waiting for the elevator. It finally opened with an oily wheeze, and the four employees of the second floor accounting firm came out, each one giving him their own version of the stink eye as they passed. “Evening,” he said, tipping his hat to the prune-faced receptionist. “Y’all have a good night.” Usually he took the stairs specifically to avoid these little scenes. But tonight it was raining, and his leg was paining him, and these California crackers would just have to cope.

He was just about to step inside when the girl ran in from the street—blonde, tall, soaking wet with her little blue frock plastered to her body like a second skin. With an inward sigh, Watson stepped back to let her board the elevator without him. “I’ll wait for the next one.”

“There’s only one, and it’s slower than Christmas,” she said, laughing. “Come on, don’t be ridiculous.” Miss Prune Face had stopped at the street door and turned all the way around to gape at them, and her mouth dropped open like a dead trout’s as he stepped inside. The blonde waved to her and stuck out her tongue just as the doors heaved closed.

“What floor, miss?” Watson asked, suppressing a smile.

“Three,” she said. “I work for Mr. Holmes.”

Watson had never stopped on the third floor, but he’d seen the name on the directory in the lobby. “So what does a consulting detective do?” he asked. “Spy on cheating husbands, that kind of thing?”

“Nothing like that,” she said. “At least not so far. To tell you the truth, all I’ve seen him do since he hired me a week ago is think a lot and teach me to make what he calls an almost passable cup of tea. He’s English.”

“Oh.” Even Watson, who wasn’t particularly inquisitive by nature, wondered what kind of tea brewing she meant to do at seven-thirty on a Friday night. But then, seeing the way her wet dress clung to her hips, he reckoned he could guess. “Here we are then,” he said as the elevator lunged to a stop. “Third floor.”

“Thanks—Dr. Watson, isn’t it?” she said.

“It is.” She was a pretty girl; he hoped this English Mr. Holmes deserved her. “Have a good night.”

“You too.” She took his dangling hand and shook it. “I’m Grace.” She stepped out and started down the hall. “Good night.” When the elevator closed, he was still watching her walk away.

The rain was still pounding when he stepped out on the roof. The pigeons stirred and cooed as always, sidling along their perches, jockeying for position. “Sorry, kids,” he said, filling their troughs with seed. “It’s too wet to fly.” The old man who had left him the birds as payment of his bill had spent hours on the roof, day and night, rain or shine, talking to his pets and letting them fly for hours. But Watson didn’t have that kind of time. He tried to release them to exercise for a little while every day, but he didn’t keep the careful count when they came back that Mr. Rosenbaum had, and over the past month, he’d lost a few. He wouldn’t have grieved much if they’d all flown away for good; keeping pigeons was not his idea of a good time, and the stairs were murder on his leg. But the old man had been his first patient when he’d come to Los Angeles. He’d never mentioned or seemed to notice the color of Watson’s skin, only that he was a doctor close by who made house calls. He had trusted him, respected him, befriended him, and he had died. So Watson took care of his birds.

A crack of thunder made the building shake under his feet, and the pigeons screeched and fluttered as lightning lit the sky. But he heard something else, too—a woman’s scream. “Help!” It was Grace; he was sure of it. “Somebody help!”

He sprinted down the stairs, leaping the last flight in a single clumsy bound, ignoring the pain in his leg. Her screams rose again, sharper, wordless with pain. His brain flashed on the revolver locked in his desk drawer on the ground floor then on the heavy cane he’d dropped on the roof, but he ran on.

The door to the Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective Agency was standing ajar. As he reached for the knob, still running, it crashed open, knocking him backwards, his forehead cracking the glass. He only caught a glimpse of a male figure dressed in black, some kind of big, floppy coat and a hat pulled low on his brow, shading his face. But he smelled him, a pungent, acrid smell like burning leaves. The mystery man had disappeared into the stairwell before Watson got his bearings. He thought of going after him, but the girl was still inside.

But she wasn’t screaming any more. He found her on the floor behind the desk. She had been stabbed in the chest; there was blood everywhere. But she was alive.

He fell to his knees beside her. “John.” Her voice was weak but urgent. Her pretty face was deathly pale and slick with sweat. “Listen.” Her dress had been ripped open, and her chest was gushing blood in spurts in rhythm with her weakening heart, too much to actually see the wound. He tore off his jacket, wadded it up, and pressed it to the blood flow. She screamed, grabbing his arm, and he felt her sternum giving way.

“Holy God.” The bastard had cracked her open like a surgeon.

“Dying.” Her red nails dug into his wrist. “Tell Mr. Holmes…the fox.” Blood bubbled from her lips, and her eyes went blank.

“No!” He could hear footsteps coming closer, voices from below. At night, the empty building was like an echo chamber, but he thought someone was coming up the hall. “Somebody help me!” he shouted. “We need help!” But Grace was gone.

“Don’t move,” a man’s voice commanded. “Stay exactly as you are.” He heard the door creak, and looked back over his shoulder. “I said don’t move!” This man was white and dressed in brown, a strange, cloak-like tweed coat and a hat Watson’s grandfather would have called a deerstalker. Watson started to stand. “Please, be still one more moment.”

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Comma

chasing the dragon coverAs a lot of people know, my sister, Alexandra Christian, and I are pretty much the entire standing staff of Little Red Hen Romance. We both write stories and novels for the press, and we edit one another. There are many advantages to having your beloved sister as your editor. But there are times, particularly for Lexie, when it’s a real pain in the ass.

Lex has just finished a truly amazing Sherlock Holmes novella that should be coming out in the next few weeks, and I’ve been working on the copy edit. Lex is one of the most amazing, original, intelligent writers I know, and her grammar and punctuation are almost perfect. But that girl will party hearty with a comma; she gets it drunk and lets it sprawl naked in the most ungodly places or forgets it entirely and leaves it dead in a ditch. As a former composition instructor, I tend to lose my mind about this on a regular basis. And since this is apparently becoming a hot topic issue (see here: Daniel McMahon for Business Insider 5-2-16), we thought it might instructive or at least entertaining to see our latest exchange on the subject:

THE SAME STUPID COMMA MISTAKE THREE TIMES, ALL FROM THE SAME PARAGRAPH!!!!!!!

Okay, you’re gonna learn how to do this if it kills us both.

Example Number One:

As written by the brilliant Lexie Christian:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

This sentence is two independent clauses joined by the conjunction “and.” As are all of these examples. And it’s the EASIEST FREAKIN THING IN THE WORLD TO IDENTIFY!!!!

So, what are our two clauses? How do I know we have two? We start with the verbs. What are the verbs?

1) offered

2) managed

Okay, so who or what offered? The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat – so there we have the spine of clause number one, “coat and hat offered.” Everything that tells us information about the coat and hat (whose it was [the doorman] and what he was like [unfortunate]) and what they offered and how [an easy disguise]) are part and parcel of that clause. So Clause Number One is:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise.

So our next verb is managed. Who or what managed? He, Sherlock, our intrepid hero. Everything about him and what he managed is Clause Number Two:

This time [when he managed] he managed [there’s that spine] to pass through the doors [what he managed to do] without incident [how he did it].

Because neither of these clauses begins with an adverb like when or as or because or anything else that would turn it into a dependent clause/super-adverb supporting the other that can’t stand alone, these are two independent clauses joined with nothing more than the most common and beloved of all conjunctions, and. So you put a FUCKING COMMA IN FRONT OF THE AND!!! And thus after edits it becomes:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, and this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

SIDE NOTE ON DEPENDENT CLAUSES WHICH YOU ALMOST NEVER USE AND USUALLY GET RIGHT WHEN YOU DO: To make these the joining of a dependent clause to an independent clause, one of these clauses has to become a super-adverb. If it comes at the beginning, you need a comma:

Because the unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise, this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

But if it comes at the end, you don’t:

The unfortunate doorman’s coat and hat offered an easy disguise when this time he managed to pass through the doors without incident.

Your way, the two independent clauses is MUCH BETTER; it’s stronger and gives the reader chunks of easily visualized information. It was Mark Twain’s favorite sentence construction. AND HE ALWAYS PUT THE DAMNED COMMA IN IT!!!

So on to Example Number Two. As written, thus:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What are the verbs:

1)had been set up

2)had been moved (accommodate is also a verb, but by adding the “to” to it, you’re using it as part of an adverb modifying had been moved; it tells why the moving was done. Lesser minds would be confused by this; I know you can see it.)

What had been set up? Stage

What had been moved? Chaises

So our two clauses are:

1) A small stage had been set up along the back wall.

2) The cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

What is joining them? There’s our lil buddy and again.

So our edited sentence becomes:

A small stage had been set up along the back wall, and the cozy chaises by the fire had been moved aside to accommodate more tables.

And finally, coming to you live from the exact same descriptive paragraph, I bring you Example Number Three:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Verbs?

1) was swathed

2) hung

What was swathed? Room

What hung? Musk

Two clauses then?

1) The entire room was swathed in red and gold.

2) The heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

Add our friend and and the comma it should have rode in on:

The entire room was swathed in red and gold, and the heavy musk of opium hung in the air.

If you could ever just absorb that this is WHY this comma needs to be there, I promise, you’ll just put it there naturally without having to go through this half-assed diagraming of the sentence. But just saying, “Fuck it, I can’t do commas; sue me,” looks like a consistent, habitual amateur mistake, the kind of thing that can make less imaginative editors who don’t love you and your writing like I do dismiss you as a lightweight. And that just is not acceptable. Every one of these sentences is brilliant; you’ve compacted massive amounts of vibrant information into just a few words and created a whole scene. So just get the commas right!

An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Coming October 27!

SHA_finalHey kittens, guess what? I have a story in this anthology coming out October 27, 2015 from Mocha Memoirs Press. Doesn’t it look awesome?

“When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most recognizable characters in Western literature.  Conan Doyle’s inimitable detective has been the subject of literally thousands of books, movies, television shows, plays and even songs.  With the rise of the BBC series and the release of all copyrights, the beloved character has found a new life among modern audiences.

In An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, 14 authors of horror and mystery have come together to create a unique anthology that sets Holmes on some of his most terrifying adventures.  A pair of sisters willing to sacrifice young girls to an ancient demon for a taste of success, a sinister device that can manipulate time itself, and a madman that can raise corpses from the dead are just a few among the grisly tales that can be found within these pages.

Curl up with a warm cuppa and leave all the lights on.  This is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes.

Wanna sneak peek? Here’s an excerpt from my own story (and first ever mystery tale), “The Fairy Pool:”

Watson packed his case with grim determination, preparing for an outing to the countryside as if for a bivouac through the wilds of Afghanistan. But the most perilous frontier to be crossed was the front parlor of his own London lodging where his accustomed adversary lay in wait.

“Watson, where are you going?” The ambush came as he’d expected from the dim recesses of Holmes’ library, a shout through the open door.

“I told you.” He placed his case by the door and went calmly to the cupboard for his overcoat and hat. “Mary and I are going to visit an old school chum of hers in the country.”

Sherlock popped out of the library like a jack from a box. “It’s a lie.”

“It is not.” Watson smiled the mild smile of the righteous man. “Why should I lie?”

“Well done, John.” His friend’s color was high and dramatic. Either he had already imbibed some chemical stimulant at nine in the morning or the mere fact of John’s leaving had sent him into the first stages of frenzy on its own. “For once, you’ve hit upon the crux of the question without prompting. Why indeed?” John removed the train tickets from his pocket, and Sherlock snatched them from his hand. “Ravenglass,” he read.

“In the Lake District,” John said, taking them back. “Mary’s friend Seraphima grew up there. It’s meant to be quite lovely.”

“In summer perhaps.” The great detective was obviously unconvinced. “In October it will be a miserable bog. And really, John, Seraphima? Is that the limit of your invention? Seraphima is the name of an Italian carnival dancer, not the school chum of one’s respectable fiancée.”

John was inclined to agree. “Nevertheless, that is her name. Her aunts are the novelists Nora and Mirabel May. Perhaps one of them chose her name.”

Sherlock frowned. “That does seem plausible.” He took the tickets again and sniffed them. “As spinsters and the most prominent and financially successful members of the family, they would no doubt exert a certain influence over the naming of offspring, particularly those from poorer branches of the clan.”

“Seraphima was orphaned at an early age and brought up by the aunts,” John said. “So I’m sure you must be right.”

“One hardly follows the other, but yes, I must be.” He sniffed the tickets again. “When did you purchase these?”

John took them back. “Yesterday afternoon.” He put them back in his pocket. “I had just returned from the station when I told you about our trip.”

Sherlock’s smile was positively demonic. “That is a lie.”

“Holmes, really—“

“Those tickets rested for no small time in close proximity to the bare skin of your fiancée—next to her bosom, unless I miss my guess.”

John’s eyes popped. “I do beg your pardon!”

“They reek of her perfume—an ordinarily subtle scent intensified precipitously by abundance, heat, moisture, or some combination of the three. Since Mary is an extremely hygienic young woman not given to bathing herself in perfume or acts of great physical exertion, I deduce that she carried the tickets next to her skin while in a state of anxiety which resulted in greater than usual perspiration.”

“Have you been sniffing my fiancée?!?”

“Don’t be absurd.”

“No, but really!” Ordinarily Holmes’ deductions were a source of wonder and no small delight to his friend, but this seemed not only improper but highly perilous. “Who are you to recognize her scent?”

“I recognize the presence of Mrs. Hudson’s favorite hack driver by the lingering aroma of horse shit on my hall rug,” Holmes said. “This in no way represents a symbolic romantic attraction.” Now that he had the upper hand, his smile was almost warm. “Tell me the truth, John. Why are you going to the Lake District? What has Mary so frightened?”

“She isn’t frightened, Holmes; don’t be so dramatic.” He handed over the newspaper clipping Seraphima had enclosed with her frantic letter. “Merely concerned.”

“Search continues for missing child,” Holmes read the headline. “Hope fast slipping away—good lord, who writes this drivel?”

“The missing girl apparently has some connection to Seraphima and her family,” John explained. “She’s only seven years old, and Seraphima feels responsible for her in some way. She wrote Mary to ask if I might come and offer my assistance to the police.”

“You?” He handed back the clipping. “She asked for you?”

‘Why not?” John said, trying to remain unruffled. “She has read my accounts of your exploits, so she is aware of my expertise in such matters.”

“Your accounts, my exploits.” Holmes was heading for his bedroom. “Expertise indeed—do they want a nicely typed story for the newspapers, or do they want the girl found?”

“Perhaps they don’t want their lives turned upside down by a raving madman whose methods of investigation require the emotional ruin of everyone even remotely involved.” John followed and found him throwing a seemingly random collection of personal belongings into a case of his own. “Holmes, you are specifically not invited.”

“Nevertheless, I shall go.” He latched the case and handed it to John. “Come, come, Watson; Mary will be waiting. We mustn’t be late.”

“No.” There was no use arguing, and if put to torture, John might have admitted to feeling a wee bit relieved. “All right. Let’s go.”

End of excerpt – sounds pretty good, right? And here’s a list of the rest of the stories and authors involved – they all look fantastic to me:

 

Sherlock Holmes and the Hungry Ghost by Katie Magnusson

The Diamond Carter Ghost by Matthew Wilson

The Haunted Branch Line by Tally Johnson

The Arendall Horror by Thomas Olbert

Worlds Collide by S. H. Roddey

Time is Running Out, Watson by Adrian Cross

A Voice in the Blood by Dan Shaurette

The Hunt of the Red Boar by Thomas Fortenberry

The Canaries of Clee Hills Mine by Robert Perret

The Chase by Melissa McArthur

The Adventure of the Missing Trophy by Mark W. Coulter

The Case of the Rising Dead by Trenton Mabey

The Adventure of the Slow Death by Harding McFadden

Because life is too short to read crap

the king's tutor coverLike more than 20 million other people, I read e-books on a Kindle, and my favorite genre is romance. A quick search on Amazon for romance titles this morning yielded me 365,065 options to choose from. I know from experience that there are treasures to be found all the way up and down the charts. But the vast majority of these 365,065 e-books calling themselves romances are total, unmitigated, stinky, slimy, sloppy crap. The Wild West world of e-publishing combined with a media that continually broadcasts romance as that world’s most popular and therefore most potentially profitable genre have shaken stuff out of the bushes that would make Grace Livingston Hill say “Fuck this noise” and switch to thrillers. Well-meaning amateurs who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper sack with a box cutter and a blowtorch have unwittingly conspired with cynical assholes who say flat out they hate romance as they write the dumbass porno to prove it. Together they’ve created a digital Bog of Eternal Stench where readers who actually love the genre can only cling to the few writers they already know they can trust and pray for daylight—and better pricing.

Life is too short to read crap. That’s the idea that inspired Little Red Hen Romance, a smallest-of-the-small-time e-book publisher that I hope will give me and readers like me a better option. The plan is to publish at least four new romance short story titles every month starting on May 1. The stories will be absolutely free for their first week of release (and only available through Amazon) then 99 cents forever thereafter (and available from B&N and iTunes, too). If things go well, we’ll do longer anthologies and maybe even full-length books, but for now, we’re trying it out with the shorties, 3000-8000 words each. But short as they are, every story will be an actual romance by a criteria that might be entirely subjective to me but that I really think a lot of readers have been missing. When I started thinking about what I wanted and wasn’t getting from new romance, I came up with a list of three things:

1 – Sparkling dialogue: Nothing kills a love connection for me faster than dull, flat, lifeless talk, and what passes for romance these days even on the bestest of bestseller lists is full of it. Before I can care about people falling in love, I have to like them; I have to want to listen to them; I have to see the sparks fly between them. Not every story has to be a laugh-a-minute romantic rollick (though there will definitely be some of that, too), but I promise, the characters in the stories from Little Red Hen will be able to carry on a conversation before they start stripping off their clothes—and after.

 2 – Tender sensuality: I love me some smut. Explicit sexuality has been a hallmark (and some would say the major selling point) for romance since the 1970s, and as a reader, I want and expect it. And I’m not squeamish about the mechanics—twosomes, threesomes, up, down and sideways, with handcuffs or without; I’ve read books that rocked my world from all of these, books that I would definitely call romance. What set them apart was the attitude of the characters getting it on toward one another, their reasons for hopping in the sack (or the haystack or the space bunk or that big ol’ hot tub full of banana puddin’) in the first place. Not every character who has sex in a Little Red Hen book will be madly in love when they start, but they’ll at least be considering it by the time they finish. The person or persons they’re sexing will have value to them as people, and their physical actions toward them will reflect that. Nobody is going to get genuinely humiliated in a LRH book (and no monster will ever “turn anybody gay” because that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard of in my life, and I work at a law firm). We in the Hen House want to turn our readers on and make their toes curl but let them still feel clean and able to look their preacher in the eye afterwards.

 3 – Heart-melting romance: This one is the most important. It’s what’s most often missing from the books I hate, and I think it’s what embarrasses the haters most about romance, far more than any kind of sexual content ever could. If a story is going to be a romance by the genre definition (not the literary, which is a whole different thing involving a much wider range of happy endings), it has to be a love story; it has to be the series of events which leads the characters into (or deeper into) love. It doesn’t have to end in marriage or a marriage proposal or a declaration of eternal devotion. But it’s got to mean more than an orgasm, a contract, or the acquisition of a business partner to pay the household expenses. It’s about people touching soul to soul, something I believe in very strongly. Otherwise, for me, it’s not a romance. Every Little Red Hen story, whether it’s historical, contemporary, paranormal, steampunk, straight, LGBT, funny, dramatic, or just plain weird will be a love story by this definition.

For more information about the press or the individual titles coming up at our launch on May 1, please drop by the website at http://lucybluecastle.wix.com/littleredhenromance or come like us on Facebook. And by all means, come hang out at our Facebook launch party on Wednesday, April 29, at 8 pm EDT—yes, we’ll mention the books, and yes, there will be preview giveaway swag, but mostly it’ll be a bunch of romance lovers chatting and snarking and having fun, and we’d love to see you there: https://www.facebook.com/events/807514879343283/

One from the Vaults for Halloween

frankenstein_150211-173Earlier this week, me and my peeps Alexandra Christian, Crymsyn Hart, and Siobhan Kinkade went to the big city moving pitcher show and saw Benedict Cumberbatch and company in the NBT’s version of Frankenstein. And it was awesome!  I wanted to write a full, glowing review, but honestly, enough people have done that already – just trust me; if you haven’t seen it yet, just go already. And if you’ve only seen the version with Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and Jonny Lee Miller as the Creature, go back and see the other one. Seriously, there are no words to describe how awesome Cumberbatch is in that part.

But I digress.  It’s Halloween, I just saw a kick-ass version of Frankenstein, and I don’t have time to write a new story at the moment, so I’m reposting this one.  It originally appeared in a gorgeous coffeetable book on the art of Isabel Samaras entitled Tender Hooks, and I’ve actually featured it here before. But for anyone who hasn’t seen it and wants a short, scary read, here’s for you. Fair warning, though – it is VERY gruesome and pretty darn explicit. Read at your own risk. bwhahahahahahah

 

The Bride

My darling sister,

            I have little hope that you could believe the strange particulars of my tale even if I could tell it to you sitting at your side.  In truth, I can hardly believe it myself.  But I beg you, do not listen when others will tell you I am dead, that my precious Charles is dead and I have succumbed to despair.  Those who would tell you such a lie are only protecting themselves, and in truth,  I cannot blame them.  But neither can I bear to think that you will grieve for me.  Know by these lines that I live.  I have found the every happiness you wished me not so long ago when you kissed me on my wedding day.  My Charles is here beside me, and my heart is full of joy.

                                                            Yours ever loving,

                                                                        Elizabeth

 

Elizabeth leapt down from the coffin maker’s wagon almost before the horses stopped.  “The hospital!” she demanded, grabbing the first British soldier she saw standing upright.  “Where is the hospital?”

The young man just stared at her as if he couldn’t quite believe his eyes.  “I don’t . . . who are you?”

She slapped him across the cheek.  “Listen.”  She took hold of his bearded chin and focused her eyes on his.  “I am the wife of Captain Charles Dumont of His Majesty’s Royal Marines.  He has written he was wounded.  He has asked me to come quickly.”  Her grip tightened.  “Where is the damned hospital?”

“There.”  He pointed across the ruined field to a half-demolished gatehouse.  “In the cellar – use the outside steps.”

“Thank you.”  She heaved the heavy carpetbag full of Charles’ notebooks in both arms like a baby and broke into a run.

The stone stairs were sticky with blood, and the charnel-house stench rising from the open doorway was appalling, but she didn’t hesitate.  “Ho, Miss!” the guard at the door called as she pushed past him.  “You can’t go in there!”

“Stop me, and I’ll kill you where you stand,” she muttered without slowing down.  A skinny young fellow in bloodied shirtsleeves and a bloody apron over his uniform trousers was coming toward her up the narrow aisle between the stretchers, carrying a tray with a brown bottle of laudanum, a small glass, and a crystal pitcher of water.  “Come with me,” she ordered.  “I may have need of you.”  Without pausing to see if he obeyed, she hurried along the line, looking down into each sweating, pain-twisted face.  “Charles!” she called out, fighting back tears.  “Darling, where are you?”  The officers and foot soldiers were all mixed in together, and some were obviously already dead, but she refused to panic.  She had come at once in the clothes on her back with nothing more than the notebooks; she must surely have arrived in time.

“Elizabeth!”  Alistair Gray was hurrying toward her through a narrow doorway to one side, wiping his bloody hands on a towel.  “In Christ’s name, why are you here?”

“Where is he?” she demanded, her legs going weak with relief.  “He sent for me – I came as quickly as I could.”  The look on his face made her blood run cold; she tried to shut it out.  “Where is Charles?”

“Dear Elizabeth.”  He tried to take the carpetbag from her arms, but she refused to loosen her grip, clutching it more tightly to her breast.  “He should not have sent for you.  You should not have come.”

“He is my husband; of course I should have come.”  She looked up into his eyes, clenching her jaw to keep from screaming.  “For the last time, Alistair, where is he?”

“Darling, Charles is dead.”  Her legs gave way for a moment, making her stagger, and Alistair caught her by the arms.  “Help me,” he ordered the young man carrying the laudanum.  “We must get her out of here—“

“No.”  She straightened up, wriggling free.  “Take me to him.  I don’t believe you.”

“Elizabeth, for pity—“

“He is not dead.”

“My love, I promise you, he is—“

“Take me to him!”

The fury in her tone made his face turn whiter underneath its freckles.  “Very well.”  He took her gently by the elbow, and this time she allowed it.  “Come.”

The dead were being stored like firewood in a gardening shed, the bodies of foot soldiers stacked along one wall.  Two officers had been laid head to foot on a low, marble-topped counter along the other wall below a row of windows.  One of these was Charles.  She let out a small, strangled sound, and the carpetbag fell from her arms.

“Elizabeth,” Alistair said, trying to take hold of her, but she pushed him away, moving forward.

“My darling . . .”  She touched his face, the skin as hard and smooth as stone.  “My darling, I have come.”  Half-blind with tears, she ran her hands over his body, pushing back the tatters of his clothes.  His head, arms, and torso were mostly intact, but one leg was little more than butchered meat and bone, and the flesh was swollen and torn over one hip, a sickening wound that smelled like blood and shit.

“He was in terrible pain,” Alistair said from behind her.  “The intestines were torn, Elizabeth.  I know you would have wanted to speak with him one last time, but truly, his death was a mercy.”

“He is still warm.”  She lifted a dead hand to her face, kissing the palm and curving the fingers to cup her cheek.  “His flesh is still pliable.”

“He has not been gone for long.”  She shivered, swallowing a sob, and he put a hot, dirty hand on her shoulder.  “Let me take you away from here.  The troops will be pulling out soon – Nappie is nipping at our heels.”

“Was his heart damaged at all?”  She caressed her husband’s face, tracing the curve of his jaw as she gazed down on his closed eyes, the dark brown lashes stark against his blue-white cheek.  The eyes beneath those lids were blue.  She imagined the moment when the life went out of them, when her darling one had ceased to live inside this shell she loved.  “And his brain?”

“His heart no doubt sustained a certain strain as he lay dying, yes.”  He knew what she was getting at; she could hear the horror in his voice.  “With the brain, it would be impossible to say what damage might have occurred.”

“But all of the tissue is present,” she persisted.  Letting go of Charles’ hand, she moved along the counter to examine the other dead officer.  This one had lost the top half of his head, but the rest of his body seemed virtually untouched.  She unbuttoned his trousers and pushed them down over his hips, making the young medic who was still attending them cry out in horror.  “Their frames are of comparable size,” she said with barely a tremble.  “Presumably the organs would be compatible as well.”

“Elizabeth, be quiet,” Alistair ordered.  “Think what you are saying—“

“I’ve brought the notebooks.”  She bent down and opened the carpetbag, pulling out the one on top and holding it out to him.  “He asked me to bring them.  Alistair, he knew.”

“You’re mad,” he insisted.  “Mad with grief—“

“Your experiments in London were successful—“
“Successful?” he demanded, aghast.  “The subjects went insane with violent rage the moment they awakened—“

“The subjects were dogs,” she pointed out.  “They had no true consciousness, no soul—“

“His soul is gone!” he shouted.

“No,” she said, tears spilling down her cheeks.  She was still crouched on the floor beside the carpetbag; now she reached out and took hold of his trouser leg, on her knees.  “His soul is waiting for me.  He will return.  He could not leave me.”  He was looking down at her, terror and tenderness mingled on his face in equal measure.  “He sent for me, Alistair.  He told me to come.”

“To say good-bye.”  He fell to his knees as well.  “Elizabeth, your heart is broken now, but it will mend.  You will love again—“

“No.”  She laid her palm against his cheek.  “If you love me, you must help me now.”  She stood up and went to the medic, still watching them as if he thought he must be dreaming, his tray still before him.  She poured a healthy measure of laudanum into the glass and topped it off with water.  “Go and prepare a surgery,” she told him.  “Dr. Gray must operate.”

“No,” Alistair said, shaking his head.  “You cannot ask me to do this.  I will not.”

“You will.”  She handed him the drug.  “I will help you.”  He drank deeply, and she smiled.  “We will bring him back.”

ššššššššššššššš

            Making ready was much easier than she had dared to hope.  The British troops had indeed moved out within the hour and left the dead and wounded behind with only Alistair and the one skinny medic to attend them.  There was no one to see them carry Charles and the other officer’s corpse into the roofless dining room that would serve as a laboratory, no one to ask questions as they assembled the equipment listed so carefully in Charles’ notebook, no one but Elizabeth to know how much of the opiate Alistair needed before he was ready to begin.

With Elizabeth standing on one side of the long dining table to mind the instruments and the medic ready at the other to do the heavy lifting, Alistair removed Charles’ ruined leg at the hip, dismantling the joint with a watchmaker’s careful precision.  “The skeleton can be saved here,” he said calmly, as if he were back in London addressing his students at the RoyalAcademy.  “But the flesh and organs must be replaced.”

“Sweet Jesus,” the medic groaned, closing his eyes.

“Steady on, lad,” Elizabeth ordered, refusing to acknowledge the tremor in her own voice.  “We’ve only just begun.”

Three hours later, the anatomical assembly was complete.  The medic lit lamps and tall torches against the gathering darkness, and Alistair mixed himself another drink, laudanum in brandy now instead of water.  “You’ve done beautifully,” Elizabeth said, standing by the body that now lay on the table intact, her precious Charles with the leg and cock of a stranger.  The medic had already discarded the leftover bits into one of the mass graves left open by the infantry when they marched away.

“I have done abomination,” Alistair said, his words slurred from the drug.

“Nonsense.”  She caressed her husband’s cheek for a moment before she turned back to his dearest friend, determined to go on.  “How do we charge the cells?”

Alistair looked as if he wanted to argue, but he smiled instead.  His flesh was as pale and drawn as the man on the table’s, his eyes rimmed in red, and his smile was like the grotesque grin of a skull.  “Not yet, my love,”  he said, raising his glass to her.  “First we must bind him down.”

The electrical apparatus was a clumsy, inelegant thing, a cage of greasy metal fittings and crystal tubes enclosing Charles on every side connected to an inner web of delicate copper wires that wrapped around his body like a shroud.  Back in London, she had wept to see such a thing constructed over the corpse of a dead dog, had bitten her own fist to the bone to keep from sobbing when Charles and Alistair had switched it on.  But now her eyes were dry.  “Have we made it properly?” she said, studying the beautifully-drawn schematic in the notebook.

“What does it matter?” Alistair said with a bitter laugh.  The mad light she had always feared in him had come into his eyes.  “How can we hurt him now?”

“Just what is it we mean to do, Doctor?” the medic asked.  “What is this contraption?”

“Oh come now, Sergeant, surely you’ve guessed,” Alistair said, draining his glass.    “We mean to make new life.”  He took Elizabeth’s hand and kissed it.  “Are we not gods, after all?”

Elizabeth caught his hand as he would let her go.  “Promise me you’ve built it just the way you and Charles did in London,” she said, her nails digging into his flesh.

“Oh yes.”  He drew her closer, close enough to smell the brandy on his breath.  “It is exactly the same.  When the sergeant engages those cells, the current will surround him completely and penetrate his flesh, just as it did to those poor creatures we tortured in London.  Every nerve will be charged with electricity at once, a fire in his blood, inside the marrow of his bones, a pain to raise the dead.  Remember how they howled, Elizabeth?”  Her lower lip trembled, and tears spilled from her eyes, but she refused to look away.  “Is this what you want?”

“Yes.”  Her voice was steady in spite of her tears.  “I will not let him go.”

“Selfish, stupid child.”  His grip was painful on her wrist, and he bent closer as if he meant to kiss her mouth.  She closed her eyes and turned her face away.  “The sin be on your head.”  He let her go.  “Not mine.”

She opened her eyes to find that he had turned away, and she whispered, “Of course.”

“Engage the cells,” he ordered the medic.  The young man obeyed, though his face was white as death with fear.  A high-pitched whine rose from the apparatus, and the vapor in the crystal tubes began to glow.  “Guard the door,” Alistair said, shouting over the din as the metal cage began to shake.  “For God’s sake, don’t let it escape.”  The medic scrambled for his rifle and stationed himself at the door, his bayonet pointed at the corpse.

Elizabeth barely noticed.  The spider’s web of copper had begun to spark and crackle, the body snared inside of it to twitch.  As she crept closer, she could see the veins along the inside of her husband’s arms deepen in color and begin to pulse with life.  “It’s happening.”  His fists clenched, a voluntary movement, graceful and controlled.  “It’s all right, darling,” she promised.  “I’m here.”  His eyes popped open, and his gaze met hers.  “You’re alive.”  She was laughing and crying at once, horrified by the pain she could see in his eyes but weak with relief.  “You will be all right.”

“Don’t touch him!”  Alistair caught hold of her arm, moving closer as well.  “The current would kill you.”  The sparks were reflected in the surgeon’s eyes, his expression a mixture of horror and fascination.

The body began to jerk on the table like a puppet shaken by the strings, but the apparatus was losing power, its whine losing pitch, its glow beginning to fade.  “No!” Elizabeth said, rushing to the cells, but she didn’t know what to do.  “Alistair, fix it – don’t let it stop!”

“The cells will only hold so much charge,” he answered, coming after her.  “A man is not a dog—“

As to dispute him, Charles threw back his head and howled, the muscles in his neck contorted with the strain.  His head thrashed back and forth against the table, his lips drawn back over his teeth.  The medic screamed like a woman as the creature lunged against the restraints, one powerful arm coming free.

“Turn it off!” Elizabeth cried.

“Elizabeth!” Alistair shouted, appalled, as the creature groped for her, breaking through the cage of glass and metal.  The surgeon dove for the controls, ripping at the wires, his hands burning as he grabbed the still-glowing copper.  “Sergeant, for God’s sake, help her!”

“My lady, come back!” the medic said, rushing forward.  He tried to grab hold of her with one hand as he aimed his rifle with the other, but she dodged him, pushing him away.  In the same moment, the creature on the table broke free.  He flung the cage that surrounded him away in a shower of sparks and breaking glass, howling and snarling like a wolf at bay.  Elizabeth screamed as he caught hold of the medic and shook him like a rag doll, the rifle firing wild as he dropped it on the floor.

“Charles, no!” she screamed again as he wrapped a hand around the medic’s throat and squeezed, snapping his neck like a reed.

“Elizabeth, get back!” Alistair ordered, drawing his pistol.

“No!”  She moved to grab for him, but the creature was faster.  Raising a heavy section of the apparatus that had saved him in both hands, he turned on the man who had been his dearest friend and broke the metal framework over his head.  Alistair staggered, the pistol falling from his grasp.  “Charles!” Elizabeth cried, but she could not seem to move; her legs had turned to water.  The creature raised the last broken pipe he still held and hit Alistair again, a sideswipe to his skull that sent him crashing to the floor.

“Charles.”  He turned to her, panting, his face still drawn with pain.  His dark brown hair was wet with sweat and falling in his eyes, and his head was lowered, his shoulders hunched – an animal at bay.  “You’re safe.”  Trembling, she made herself move closer.  “The worst is over, darling.”  He still held the broken pipe, now wet with Alistair’s blood.  “You have come back to me.”  He looked confused, a child lost in the dark, and she smiled, tears spilling down her cheeks.  “It will be all right.”  Moving slowly, she reached for the twisted web of copper still wrapped around his waist.  “No one will hurt you any more.”  He drew in a sharp breath as she touched him, his fist tightening around the pipe, but he didn’t move to fight her as she unwrapped the web and dropped it at their feet.  “I love you so much.”  She laid her palms against his chest, and he flinched, a tremor racing through him.  “I love you.”  She pressed her open mouth to his skin, the hard plane of muscle just over his heart.  She could feel his heart beating, stronger and stronger, feel his flesh warming under her hands, and she moved closer, curling against him, making a sound between a laugh and a sob.  He was alive.

He dropped the pipe and scooped her off her feet.  Making a sound that was almost like words, he kissed her, his mouth rough and clumsy on hers, his tongue pushing inside, and she tasted him, meat and metal, not revolting but different, not the taste she knew but somehow like it.  He carried her across the room and shoved her back against the broken plaster wall, and she felt a sharp stab of pain in her side.  “Elizabeth.”  His voice was thick and slurred, barely intelligible, barely human.  But it was her Charles’ voice, speaking her name.

“Yes.”  She caressed his cheek, framing his face in her hands.  “Your own Elizabeth.”  She kissed his mouth, drawing his lower lip between her teeth.  She was bleeding from her side, hot and wet, but she barely noticed, barely felt the pain.  He lowered his face to her shoulder, sniffing her flesh like a dog as he ripped at her clothes, baring her breasts.  Hunched over her, he wrapped his arms around her, one powerful forearm under her behind to lift her up, his mouth coming down on her breast, suckling like a child.  “Yes,” she repeated, faint with sudden, fiery want.  His touch was as rough as his kisses, and she gasped as his hand found her cunt.  He groaned low in his throat, and she felt his cock against her hip, hard and strange.  She trailed her fingertips along his side, across his stomach, and finally down over his hip, trembling with fear and fascination as she traced the seam where he had been remade.  He grabbed her wrist so hard she cried out, but she didn’t try to pull away.  He looked down at her, awareness dawning in his deep blue eyes.  He kissed her mouth again, more tenderly, more sure.  She wrapped her hand around his cock and guided him inside her.

He drew his breath in sharply, closing his eyes, and his arms tightened around her.  She braced her hands against his shoulders as he drove upward, pushing her up the wall, then wrapped her legs around his hips.  His bare skin felt hot against hers, as hot as ever in his life, and though the cock inside of her felt strange, his rhythm was familiar, a long, slow build that carried her passion with his.  She watched his face and nearly cried, the way his brow was knit in concentration was so much the way she remembered.  She pressed her cheek to his, her arms around his neck.  “My love . . .”  He quickened his pace, shifting her closer, his hips ground to hers, and the sharp thrill of her climax broke inside her.  She cried out, and he groaned, driving her harder against the wall, and she felt him come as well, the wet burst cooler than life and vaguely shocking, making her shiver.  She lay her head down on his shoulder, clinging tight, and he cradled her close for a long, sweet moment.  A sob escaped her as she pressed her face to his throat, her arms wrapped tightly around him.  Still holding her against him, he sank to the floor, and she curled close in his lap.

“Elizabeth . . .”  His voice was still strange but more tender.  He cradled her jaw in his palm, turning her face up to his.  He smiled down on her, haunted but alive.  “Thank you.”

“My sweet darling,” she said, laughing with relief.  Her face pressed to his chest, she felt his arms enfold her.  She knew they were safe.

“Elizabeth.”  Alistair was coming toward them, his head and neck and collar soaked with blood, his pistol aimed before him.  “Get out of the way.”

“Alistair, no,” she said, trying to struggle to her feet.  He was coming closer, stepping over the dead medic.  “Please, stop.”  Charles stood up, lifting her easily.  “Wait, both of you,” she protested as he set her to one side.

“It is a monster,” Alistair was saying, his eyes bright as if with fever.  “It must be destroyed.”  The pistol was shaking in his hand.  Charles snarled at him, taking a step forward.

“No!” she screamed, throwing herself between them.  The pistol shot ripped through her, a bolt of lightening through her chest.  She fell forward, clutching at Charles, an icy cold spreading inside of her, hot blood pouring from her breast.

“Dear God,” she heard Alistair say from behind her, a dull thud as the pistol hit the floor.  “Forgive me . . . .”  Then everything went black.

ššššššššššššššš

            When she opened her eyes, a man was bending over her – a demon.  Fire was consuming her; she was in hell.  She screamed, struggling in bonds that held her down, desperate to escape.  Searing, stabbing pain raced down her limbs, making them jerk without her will, and she whipped her head from side to side, gnashing her teeth in fury.  How dare they? she screamed inside her head, but the words would not come; she could not make them form inside her mouth.  As quickly as the thought was born, it died, lost inside a wild, animal rage.

“Peace, love,” the beautiful demon was saying, words that just barely had meaning.  Just outside the range of her vision as she fought, she could hear another creature sobbing, begging for . . . . something . . . . what did this mean, forgive me?   The fire was fading, the pain becoming less, but her confusion was growing.  The man bending over her was unfastening her bonds, and she began to cry.  “Come back to me.”  He kissed her, lifting her up in his arms, kissed her eyelids and her cheeks, and suddenly she knew him.

“Charles.”  Her voice was barely more than a rasp, but he heard her.

“Yes,” he said, smiling.  She looked down at her chest and saw a long, jagged line of black stitches.  He touched her chin and turned her face to his.  “And you are Elizabeth.”

The end

Repost: The Teacher

_thumb_green+ribbon-0I originally posted this very short story December 16th of last year.  Teachers and students of Sandy Hook, we still remember you.

The Teacher

The gunshots were loud, close, coming closer.  Later some of her friends who lived would be saying it had all happened so fast.  But she knew she wouldn’t be with them.

The lights were out, and the door was ajar, so from the hallway the classroom would look empty.  The children were huddled in a ring around her at the back of the room on the Story Carpet.  “Quiet,” she had whispered to them, forcing herself to sound calm, to even smile a little.  “We have to be perfectly quiet.”  They were trying so hard to obey, holding hands with one another, two of them holding her hands.

Please God, she prayed inside her head.  My babies . . . please, God, please please please please please please please . . . .

She felt hands folded over her hands.  She opened her eyes and found him crouched on the Story Carpet with them, an angel.  He was beautiful, and he was smiling, but his eyes were sad.  His wings, translucent in the dim light from the windows, spread and curved around their circle, holding the children as his hands held hers.

I was sent to be with you.  She heard his voice inside her head, and in an instant, she felt calmer.  You don’t have to talk; I can hear you.

She was still terrified.  More gunshots rang out, coming from next door.  Can you save them? she asked inside her head though she already knew the answer.  Can you take them away from here?  A tear slid down the angel’s cheek, confirming what she knew.  She thought for a moment about her husband and her family and her best friend and all the ones she loved so much, and for that moment, she thought she would shatter.  But the angel held her hands and looked into her eyes, and after that one moment, she could stand it.

Can the children see you? she asked.

They can feel me, he answered.  She knew it was true.  She could feel some of the tension going out of them, some of their fear melting away.  The ones holding her hands inside the angel’s hands looked almost dreamy, sleepy-eyed and smiling.  But they don’t need to see me, the angel said.  They see you.

A moment later, the door slammed open–screaming, a terrible  noise.  She had just enough time to stand and turn, arms outspread, to think, no, you can’t have them, you bastard!  And all the time the angel was behind her, hands on her shoulders, holding her tight.  A single, terrible moment of pain ripping through her, screams of the children . . . .

Then she was walking in an open field, green and lush, gentle sunshine all around, a playground from a fairy tale.  The children were running around her like running out to recess, laughing, shouting, perfect in their joy.  She looked to one side and saw the teacher from next door.  She was holding hands with one of her students, a boy who had been in a wheelchair, barely able to speak.  Now he was walking beside her, tall and strong.  And everyone was smiling.

The angel was walking beside her.  “What will happen to them now?” she asked him right out loud, all thought of fear forgotten.

“They’ll decide.”  Peple were coming toward them, calling out greetings.  The children knew them; they were running toward them, arms outstretched, being scooped up and hugged close.  “Some of them might stay here, but most of them will probably choose to go back and start over.  They were all so young.”

“Miss, look!”  A little boy from her class had stopped and was dancing in front of her, pointing.  “It’s my pawpaw!”  An old man dressed in camoflage with a bright orange hat on his head was coming toward them.  Suddenly the little boy was dressed just the same, and he ran to his grandfather’s arms.

“What about you, Teacher?” the angel asked.  A woman had appeared on the crest of the hill just ahead of her, and her heart skipped a beat with joy.  “Will you go back?”

“I don’t know.”  She had an idea that beyond these hills, this place was even more beautiful, not a place of clouds and golden harps but of peace and laughter and love.  But the place she’d left behind had been beautiful, too, with so much love her heart ached remembering it.

She turrned to the angel.  “If I go back, will I remember this?”

“No,” he said, smiling.  All of the sadness was gone from his eyes.  Here, he had no wings she could see.  He looked just like everybody else.  “You’ll start fresh, a w hole new life.”  He took her hand.  “But I will remember you.”

the end

Fresh Blood: VWSG Anthology Vol. 1

Psssssttt!!!! Wanna read 13 AMAZING vampire stories? Wanna get the e-book REALLY CHEAP?!?! From now through Halloween, Smashwords has the Vampire Writers Support Group’s very first anthology, Fresh Blood, on deep discount. All kinds of vamps, romance to pure horror, from some of the very best writers I know – including me. 🙂 From Smashwords copy

The Teacher

This is a very short story that I will never try to sell.  Since Friday, I’ve been in a sad, shocked daze like everybody else.  Last night I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened.  I kept praying (’cause that’s what I do), asking how this could have happened, what possible great, higher purpose could it serve?  I wish I could say I got a nice, concrete answer suitable for a bumper sticker or a Twitter post, but I didn’t.  What I got was this.  I woke up this morning with this story in my head, just as you see it here.  I’ve always rolled my eyes at writers who talk about their muses pushing them one direction or another or stories that just appear to them in the night, so if your eyes are rolling now, I totally get it.  Honestly, I’m not even sure my writing and posting this isn’t offensive.  I certainly don’t pretend to know what was happening inside anybody’s head last Friday in Connecticut or to understand even the tiniest fraction of what the family and friends of the victims are going through now.  But the act of writing this has made me feel better, so maybe reading it will help somebody else.

* * * * * *

The Teacher

The gunshots were loud, close, coming closer.  Later some of her friends who lived would be saying it had all happened so fast.  But she knew she wouldn’t be with them.

The lights were out, and the door was ajar, so from the hallway the classroom would look empty.  The children were huddled in a ring around her at the back of the room on the Story Carpet.  “Quiet,” she had whispered to them, forcing herself to sound calm, to even smile a little.  “We have to be perfectly quiet.”  They were trying so hard to obey, holding hands with one another, two of them holding her hands.

Please God, she prayed inside her head.  My babies . . . please, God, please please please please please please please . . . .

She felt hands folded over her hands.  She opened her eyes and found him crouched on the Story Carpet with them, an angel.  He was beautiful, and he was smiling, but his eyes were sad.  His wings, translucent in the dim light from the windows, spread and curved around their circle, holding the children as his hands held hers.

I was sent to be with you.  She heard his voice inside her head, and in an instant, she felt calmer.  You don’t have to talk; I can hear you.

She was still terrified.  More gunshots rang out, coming from next door.  Can you save them? she asked inside her head though she already knew the answer.  Can you take them away from here?  A tear slid down the angel’s cheek, confirming what she knew.  She thought for a moment about her husband and her family and her best friend and all the ones she loved so much, and for that moment, she thought she would shatter.  But the angel held her hands and looked into her eyes, and after that one moment, she could stand it.

Can the children see you? she asked.

They can feel me, he answered.  She knew it was true.  She could feel some of the tension going out of them, some of their fear melting away.  The ones holding her hands inside the angel’s hands looked almost dreamy, sleepy-eyed and smiling.  But they don’t need to see me, the angel said.  They see you.

A moment later, the door slammed open–screaming, a terrible  noise.  She had just enough time to stand and turn, arms outspread, to think, no, you can’t have them, you bastard!  And all the time the angel was behind her, hands on her shoulders, holding her tight.  A single, terrible moment of pain ripping through her, screams of the children . . . .

Then she was walking in an open field, green and lush, gentle sunshine all around, a playground from a fairy tale.  The children were running around her like running out to recess, laughing, shouting, perfect in their joy.  She looked to one side and saw the teacher from next door.  She was holding hands with one of her students, a boy who had been in a wheelchair, barely able to speak.  Now he was walking beside her, tall and strong.  And everyone was smiling.

The angel was walking beside her.  “What will happen to them now?” she asked him right out loud, all thought of fear forgotten.

“They’ll decide.”  Peple were coming toward them, calling out greetings.  The children knew them; they were running toward them, arms outstretched, being scooped up and hugged close.  “Some of them might stay here, but most of them will probably choose to go back and start over.  They were all so young.”

“Miss, look!”  A little boy from her class had stopped and was dancing in front of her, pointing.  “It’s my pawpaw!”  An old man dressed in camoflage with a bright orange hat on his head was coming toward them.  Suddenly the little boy was dressed just the same, and he ran to his grandfather’s arms.

“What about you, Teacher?” the angel asked.  A woman had appeared on the crest of the hill just ahead of her, and her heart skipped a beat with joy.  “Will you go back?”

“I don’t know.”  She had an idea that beyond these hills, this place was even more beautiful, not a place of clouds and golden harps but of peace and laughter and love.  But the place she’d left behind had been beautiful, too, with so much love her heart ached remembering it.

She turrned to the angel.  “If I go back, will I remember this?”

“No,” he said, smiling.  All of the sadness was gone from his eyes.  Here, he had no wings she could see.  He looked just like everybody else.  “You’ll start fresh, a w hole new life.”  He took her hand.  “But I will remember you.”

 

the end