Friday, May 31, 2013

Flash Friday # 45: The Battle

    General Patigen looked across the long table where plans, maps and the debris of dinner sat scattered in arcane clusters that might mean something dangerous; at least everything except the plate of congealing meat and gravy, though to Kartus that looked the most troubling. The stuff quivered now and then, and though Kartus knew that came from the movement of troops tramping across the grounds outside the tent, it still made the remnants of the general's meal look as though they might rise up and attack at any moment.

    After what he'd seen today, he wouldn't be at all surprised.

"Tell me again," Patigen said, his voice low and dangerous. "What is it we're facing?"

The scout shifted on his feet, weary after the long hike over the hills to spy on the enemy lands. His partner said nothing at all and Kartus knew that left this report entirely in his hands.

"Only about five hundred foot soldiers, sir," he said. Patigen nodded. No surprise there. The valley between them and the Shomay Empire was narrow and long. They couldn't round up too many troops and there'd been no sign the Shomay had moved to stop the Lyten army here.

"Foot soldiers. Yes. And the rest. Say it again."

Kartus shifted on his feet again, cast Daklin one dark glance and turned back to the general. "More than two hundred riding beasts, sir. With wings."

"Riding beasts."

"Cows," he finally said. "Huge, two-legged cows with wings. The villager we brought back says they're Draconian War Cows."

Silence again. He half expect Patigen to make him repeat the report yet again. Instead, the general looked down at the table, moved something, moved another thing. Looked up.

"You will not mention the cows to anyone."

That was just fine by Kartus who knew the kind of reaction it would get from the troops. He didn't care to be the brunt of their jokes.

"Not a word."

"No sir," he agreed and Daklin gave a silent nod of agreement.


The two left. Outside the tent, Kartus gave his partner a glance and shake of his head. "That was great the way you leapt right in there and helped out, Dak."

"His dinner was moving," Dak said.

"Yeah, I noticed that, too." He realized, suddenly, that Dak had been almost entirely silent since they had first seen the war cows sailing blissfully through the air over the enemy camp.

"You didn't tell him about the women," Dak said.

"I kind of think the War Cows were enough for one report."

"I am going to go get drunk," Dak said.

"On the eve of battle? Is that wise?

"This time? Yeah."

Kartus thought about it for a moment. Then he followed his companion off to steal what liquor they could. He didn't, really, think they could get drunk enough.

The Lyten troops came over the hills in a line a hundred wide and fifty deep, the foot soldiers in the lead, the horse behind. Though that wasn't entirely true. Kartus and Dakin were actually far -- too far -- in the lead, but they were not in front of the troops. They'd climbed a huge oak to get a better view of the valley below, which still laid nestled in early morning fog.

As the battle began, Kartus knew he was right. They weren't drunk enough.

The first line of War Cows came up through the fog; bigger and uglier creatures than he remembered, though amazing they could fly on those little wings. The riders were wild haired and not so ugly. The half dozen women who rode the lead animals gave yells of bloody delight as they urged the animals straight towards the enemy lines as the rest of the war cow herd followed. Their thunderous moos filled the air as they dived at the troops.

The horses, being wiser than men, panicked first. Kartus just buried his head in his arms and refused to watch. He had to hope that flying cows could not land in trees.

It wasn't a very long battle. After the total rout, the war cows landed and placidly began to chow down on the hillside's grass while the women sat in the shade of the tree and laughed about their win. Kartus and Dakin found themselves treed for another whole day. By the time they climbed down, careful of where they stepped on the trampled field, the army had retreated over two more sets of hills.

"I joined the army to see wonders," Kartus said, looking back over his shoulder. "I've seen enough."

Dakin nodded. He didn't say much. In fact, he never said much ever again. They both retired, but then so did the General and most of his troops. Many of the poor lads could never go back to the farm and face their cows, so they took to the sea instead. Kartus heard that didn't work out so well when they discovered the island with the giant flying fish that were ridden by intelligent cats. The cats had told the fish to do something useful or be dinner. So they flew.

The Lytans never did try to take the Shomay Empire again. The battle never made the history books, either, though people talked about it often enough.

"Flying cows! Vicious flying cows!" some half-drunk man would shout. "Controlled by women! Moo! Moo!"

And the tavern would erupt into laugher, though often enough a barmaid would accidentally tip a pitcher of ale over someone's head.

At least that used to happen before the valley people invaded and the dreaded Draconian War Cows filled the air with their frightening moos and flapping wings. Now days . . . Well the men in the taverns speak softly and say yes ma'am and thank you a lot more than they used to.

And we all watch where we step.

The End

982 words

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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Waiting for the Last Dance, Chapter 4

Links to the previous chapters are HERE

Chapter Four

I walked home about eight and found my parents curled up together on the sofa and watching a movie. I waved and headed to my room, feeling stuffed and tired. I had to find some time to study for the last trig test. Maybe I should have asked Gian to help me, though he wasn't very good at it, either.

Akio had been the best at math of the three of us. She had a gift for numbers.

I sat on the edge of my bed and kicked off my shoes and stared at the wall while trying to come to terms with the idea of Akio being in town. I couldn't get past a rocks-in-the-stomach feeling every time I thought about her. She had been my best friend. She had laughed with Gian the same way she did with me.

Then she had purposely hurt him. I had never seen Akio do anything to harm another creature. She rescued bugs from the sidewalk. She had talked her father into subsidizing a large no-kill shelter for dogs and cats out by Barstow. I hadn't thought about the place until now. I wondered if he kept sending them money. I didn't want the animals to suffer for what had happened.

Drugs had turned her into a mindless killer. The drugs were gone, so was she Akio again?

Gian, despite everything, was still Gian.

I flopped on the bed and stared at the ceiling. I tried to think about trig, but I couldn't concentrate. I had remembered Gian the last time I saw him before the accident. Now, I tried to recall Akio, but I felt as though I had deleted every file I had of her out of my brain.

She'd changed, and I'd never seen the changes happen. I had been her best friend. Why had I never noticed?

Akio and I had gotten drunk once, just the two of us alone in her house with her father on a trip. She'd decided she didn't enjoy liquor and neither did I. So she turned to drugs instead? They weren't hard to find at Deervale High. Look at Missy.

When had she changed? Oh, there had been small changes from the first as she learned more of the language and relaxed a little. Maybe the little changes masked the bigger ones, or maybe they happened because of Nadine, her step-mother, a woman straight out of a soap opera. A badly plotted one. I despised Nadine.

I went over to my desk and turned on the computer for trig work. Then, despite myself, I pulled open the bottom right drawer, crammed full of papers I should have thrown out. My mother says I have inherited the pack-rat gene from my great-grandmother. I held on to things and enjoyed the tactile feel of my own history. Brushing my fingers over old papers brought back memories.

I found the journal I used to keep almost every day. I had been unable to continue writing in it after the accident. Akio and Gian where everywhere on those pages since my life had seemed to revolve around them.

I found a small photo album at the bottom of the drawer. I held the album in my hands for a moment, my eyes closed. The pictures were from Akio's sixteenth birthday. Akio, Gian and I had gone to Disneyland for ten hours of absolute silliness. It had been one of my favorite days of all time.

I glanced at the first picture, taken by some stranger we'd conned into the work. Akio stood to Gian's left, me to his right, his arms across both our shoulders. I'd forgotten how tall he'd grown.

And Akio had seemed so happy. Hell, we all did.

My hands trembled and my mouth went dry. I almost cried until I took several deep breaths, my fingers tightening around the album. I flipped the pages open and found an envelope shoved between two of them, folded in half and slightly crinkled. The postmark was from London. The letter had arrived about four months ago, but I never opened it. Maybe I needed to face this demon, too.

I tore the side open in haste, fearing I'd lose my nerve. My hands trembled so much I had trouble getting the thin sheet of paper out. I unfolded it, but I again took several breaths before I dared read the words.

I found two lines, delicately written in the style Akio had always used when she tried very hard to get something right. I could almost see her leaning over a desk with a pen in hand, her face a study of concentration. Maybe not everything was erased from my mind after all.

I do not ask for forgiveness, for there can be none.

But I am sorry.

I stared at those words for a long, long time. I don't know why reading the note made me feel like scum. Even if I had read it the day the letter arrived, it wouldn't have changed anything.

I feared I would be ill. I carefully folded the paper into the envelope and placed the album in the drawer.

Deep breaths. Calm.

I opened my homework on the computer and tried to give trigonometry my full attention for an entire hour. I couldn't: the numbers danced around in my head and I couldn't get one of the assigned questions to work out right. I finally decided I'd study trig tomorrow, on Sunday even though I usually reserve the day for no school work at all. I got ready for bed and crawled under the covers, hoping sleep would give me peace tonight. I'd had a good day. I concentrated on the dinner at the Calabrias' house, and found myself giggling at remembered snippets of conversation.

But on the edge of dream and memory, I glanced up from the table and saw not Marie Lisa and Umberto at the doorway, but rather Missy and Akio; rage and sorrow.

I awoke early, dressed, gathered my camera, and went downstairs. A heavy fog enveloped the yard outside the sliding glass doors so I couldn't see much past the deck. Mom and dad had left, so I had the place to myself for a little while. Sometimes they took drives by themselves, which was kind of sweet.

I thought about Gian and me going on rides, and smiled. I made some tea and toast with the rich boysenberry jam I love. I jotted a note saying I was going for an early morning walk, pulled on a jacket, and with the camera cradled against my body. I headed for the Kimura house.

Running away from things had never worked for me.

I crossed the street before I reached the Calabria home, hoping to go unnoticed in the fog. I knew they'd be getting ready to drive to church out in Simi Valley. My parents weren't big on organized religion, but they'd made sure I respected the beliefs of others. I used to go to one service or another with kids from Deervale, but none of them stuck. I hadn't gone to any in quite a few years.

I'd gradually grown into my mother's belief and thought of God in the world, not visiting a building at certain designated hours. With the fog closing in and mostly hiding the works of man, I felt closer to God -- or Goddess, as I often thought, which was a bit outrageous in this area. Yeah, real rebel -- me with my spiked hair and expensive camera.

I crossed areas of dew-covered grass instead of sticking to the sidewalk and moved silently away from the streets, finding my way between the houses rising like ghost buildings on both sides. I heard very little sound at this hour after dawn. Even the dogs didn't bark much though I startled rabbits at every turn. Fast little beggars -- I couldn't get a single picture.

Birds chirped and swept through the fog. I spotted two squirrels in a tall old live oak that had somehow survived the contractors and fancy buildings around it. The tree seemed a symbol of the past and a world we had destroyed when we came here to live. I brushed my hand over the trunk as I passed, and hoped the tree didn't think too badly about us.

On general principle, I still hated morning, but today proved lovely. I'm all in favor of new adventures and experiences, as long as I didn't make a habit of having them in the mornings.

Thirty minutes later, I reached the Kimura house. I stood there for another twenty minutes, getting the nerve to walk up the driveway, past the cherry trees and to the door. I didn't know what I wanted to say to Akio. I wasn't sure why I came here, except I needed to get something settled for myself. I took the path between the small, sadly neglected garden and the front door. Mr. Kimura had loved --

"I did not expect you to come here."

Akio, I suddenly recalled, was a morning person. While I fought not to curse in surprise, she stepped away from the garden bench where she'd obviously been sitting. How long had she watched me?

She seemed older than she should have been and far too thin. Dark circles showed beneath her eyes which looked red and swollen from crying. She seemed very small, and when I looked into her face, she turned away quickly, as though ashamed.

I didn't want to feel sorry for her.

"I don't know why I came here," I said, forcing my voice to remain even. No emotion and giving nothing she could assume meant I came to comfort her.

"You came because you're Mar," she answered, very softly. "You came because it's not in your nature to ignore anything bothering you."

She knew me too well. I disliked the feeling of old comradeship, but I curbed my anger. I shifted on my feet and she briefly glanced my way, bloodshot eyes in a thin pale face. "What do you want here, Akio?"

"Me?" she asked, a little surprised. She glanced up at my face for a moment, and then bowed her head. "I wish to see my father properly buried. I wish to be done with everything here, and go away."

Good idea. I started to back up, but I stopped and watched her. I had to have an answer to one question. "Why, Akio? Why Gian?"

Her breath caught, once, twice, before I realized she had begun crying. Rage rose in me once more: I wanted to slap her. She hadn't the right to cry.

"I don't remember," she whispered, her voice breaking. "I don't remember anything until months, later when I awoke in a horrible hospital. They wouldn't tell me how I had come to be there, but they would ask questions of me every day. Ask and ask and ask and ask about what happened. I remembered going to one of Nadine's stupid Hollywood parties. My father --" Her breath caught and my rage melted away. "My father wanted me to spend time with her. I went for him. I drank what Nadine gave me and tried to sit by myself, but they wouldn't leave me alone. I got ill and everything went strange. I wanted to come home. Nadine -- Nadine --"

Her voice had grown softer and more frantic, but she stopped and took a deep breath. A crow flew overhead, protesting something. The fog had begun lifting and I felt naked standing here by Akio in the full light of day.

"Is he --" She stopped at my glare. "Forgive me. I wish to know if he is better."

"He's better," I replied, still keeping my voice calm. I couldn't be purposely cruel, though I truly felt the temptation. "He may be out of the wheelchair by next year, but there are no guarantees."

She nodded. She didn't look at me. "I shall be gone soon. I shall never return. You may say so to the others who watch. I must stay until Mr. Avison has matters settled with the office. There are items I must send to my father's oldest brother, for honor's sake. Once the work is done, you may forget me again."

"No one has forgotten you," I answered and she knew from my tone that we didn't remember her well.

Akio bowed her head lower, her long dark hair falling like a veil between us. She returned to the wooden bench, sitting as though her body had folded and shrunk. I wondered if she had been there all night, unwilling to stay alone in the huge, empty house, with only the ghost of her father to keep her company.

I pitied her. I pushed the emotion away, trying to draw on the anger. I couldn't. I only knew whatever had brought me here hadn't worked. I hadn't found the answers I needed to put this to rest for my own sake. Instead of facing my anger when I stood before her, I found the emotions had warped into something else. A little nudge of disgust tried to take hold, but I couldn't decide if I felt it for me or her.

I walked away, heading to the street. When I turned to look, I could still see her, head bowed, sitting on the bench; a shadow in the lessening fog.

I took a picture. I don't know why.

I walked away, feeling lost. I wanted to go home and rest, as though the quiet, simple encounter had drained me. Maybe I could go home and do some reading or studying for trig. I'd hated trig almost all year, but at least the work would require me to think about something else.

I wandered for a while, trying to find pictures to take. More people had come out. I waved hello to some. I wanted to feel like me. A shadow had fallen over Akio and me there by the bench. I wanted away, back into the light.

Unfortunately, I spotted Missy sitting on the front steps of her house. She appeared to be hung over and extremely unhappy. I ignored her as I went past, even when she started yelling. I hadn't expected her to rush over and grab me by the arm.

"I'm talking to you, bitch," she yelled in my ear, her long nails digging into my arm.

I pulled free, managing, somehow, to keep my own temper. She almost fell, and for a moment I thought she wore those stupid heels. No, today she wore trendy sandals. Just that unsteady and likely still mostly drunk. I didn't want to have anything to do with her. I should have been paying more attention. I wouldn't have gone past her house.

She ranted about things. I couldn't understand half of what she said which made her appear even more deranged than usual.

"Give it a break, Missy!" In the scheme of things, her little petty problems seemed even less important than usual. I took a step away, but she grabbed me again. As much as I would have liked to slap her silly, I held back. "Let go."

Her pale face grew red and I could see smears of makeup beneath her bloodshot eyes. She squinted -- no contacts. Hazel eyes, I noted. At least now I knew the true color.

"How dare you call the cops on me!" she said, her voice growing louder.

"I didn't."

"Oh right. I'm talking to you and suddenly the cops show up? And you didn't call them?"

I stared for a moment, wondering what the hell kind of game -- but no. Her rage was real. She had no idea what had happened the night before.

"Were you really that far gone?" I stared at her, amazed, and pulled free of her grip once more. This was crazy. "You don't even remember Mr. Calabria staying with you while I took Gian home? Damn, Missy, if I were you, I'd check myself into some place real fast, because you are just plain dangerous."

"Don't lie to me. I know the games you're playing!"

I had never been frightened of Missy before, but the idea she could do things and not remember at all unsettled me more than my encounter with Akio had. I took a step away before she could catch hold of me again. "Go get some rest, Missy."

"Oh, you think you're so much better --" She stopped and stared past me. I heard a car going by, which had drawn her attention.

I didn't recognize the white convertible but I couldn't mistake the head of flaming red hair, the sunglasses or the smirk. I hadn't considered Nadine would show up. She had never been a part of this community. She'd married Akio's father for the money, and left when he paid her enough to go away. We all knew the truth.

Nadine scowled at us as she went past, heading for the Kimura house. I thought about Akio, there alone in the garden and felt sorry for her, mourning the loss of her father, and now faced with the harridan from hell. I wouldn't wish that even on her.

I turned to face Missy down, but she acted as though she had forgotten I existed. She watched the car with a predatory smile. Her eyes had brightened, but not with any joy.

Fine. Let her fixate on Nadine. I began walking away, though I hated the feel of her at my back. I didn't rush, but at the next driveway I glanced her way and saw Missy pulling her car out of the garage. I didn't want to be on the same street with her behind the wheel.

She gunned the engine, and backed into the street so fast she bumped the opposite curb before she could stop, turn, and race after Nadine.

I couldn't think of two people who deserved each other more.

I hurried faster, hoping to get home before she searched for me. It felt creepy, knowing she remembered nothing of last night except for dealing with me. I'd had about as much of this strangeness as I could stand. I had heard my father say the funeral would be on Monday, so maybe afterwards things would get better. Maybe Akio and Nadine would go away, and I'd only have to live with Missy being no worse or better than usual.

I fought with my emotions, spending a lot of time staring at my feet, marking the cracks in the sidewalk which seemed odd imperfections in our perfect little world. A few yards needed mowing. I counted four dandelions, those scourges of the perfect lawn. They made me smile. Maybe I'd dye part of my hair in dandelion yellow next.

I reached my block and saw four police cars parked on the street. I stopped, my heart pounding so hard I feared getting ill. I put a hand on the damp brick wall around the Miesen yard. I could hardly breathe and I feared to go on.

What had happened? I peered around the edge of the wall and noted the cop cars sat on the street by the Calabria house, not mine. I saw a dusty Jeep and someone with video equipment. Reporters. My head stopped pounding. Someone must have thought they would come and talk to Gian and quickly learned otherwise. They slipped in sometimes, and from the looks of the car, this one must have come in over the fire roads through the hills behind Deervale

A moment later the cop cars escorted the Jeep away. I stayed by the tree and watched them go, unwilling to let the reporters know I lived on this street. When the last car pulled away, I hurried towards home again.

Gian slowly came out of his house. He stood with thin, metal crutches and seeing him walking surprised and pleased me on a day when everything else had been so awful. I waved and he dipped his head in greeting and started my way.

"Disaster averted," he said, nodding towards the street. I could see a pale sheen of perspiration under his bangs and realized how difficult walking must be for him. "I bet they don't return to Deervale any time soon."

"Maybe not, but you can bet they'll talk trash about us anyway."

"True." He frowned a little. "You're up early."

"I needed to go for a walk," I said. Then I shook my head. "I had to take care of something. Damn. Gian, I went to see Akio."

"You talked to her?" he asked, his voice going very calm and his face still. I almost lied but I couldn't. Not to Gian, even if I thought no one would ever know the truth.

"Yes. Not for long. I can't forgive her, Gian. But I hate being cruel, too. Her father is dead. Talking to her didn't help anyway, and I left before things got worse." He nodded but I thought he fought to keep his anger inside. "I ran into Missy on the way home, and things got heated. She completely blanked out the fact your father was there when the police came for her. She only remembered me and blames me for calling the cops. It was so weird. And kind of scary."

He frowned, apparently unable to get past the part with Akio.

"When Nadine drove by, Missy took off after her and I got away."

He blinked and focused on me. "Sounds as though you were escaping from some wild creature."

"I felt that way, Gian. I really did." It scared me, thinking about the confrontation. "I kind of know how you must feel, sometimes."

He nodded. The hair on his face started to stick to his forehead. I wanted to brush the curls aside for him, and refrained. I feared everything I did today would go wrong.

"I'm sorry, Gian," I said softly, feeling worse because I upset him again. "I don't know what I expected when I went to Akio."

He took a deeper breath, and nodded. "I shouldn't act this way with you. I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize. I think I'm the one who did wrong, and nothing helped, at any rate."

"We've had a bad morning all the way around. I'm going to go rest for a while, and get ready for work. See you there?"

"Sure." I smiled.

He smiled, a little forced, and headed towards home. I watched for a moment, worrying he would fall. I had to force myself to turn away and walk to my house. When I reached the door, I glanced over to the Calabria home. Gian had barely reached the house and worked at getting the door open. I wanted to go help him. I knew better. I went into my house, got some coffee and went to my room to work through the trig book and try to bury all the conflicting emotions before they drove me crazy.

But I knew I would have to face them soon. I decided I would go to the funeral tomorrow. Then I could return to the routine of school, a place which would not be normal for the last few days we would be there.

Nothing to look forward to.

It wasn't fair, but I was getting used to the feeling.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Flash Fiction # 44: The Trees

The distant hum stopped, the woods filled with silence as we all held our breaths, waiting.
And then it came; the horrible, heart-wrenching sound as a big tree groaned and fell, the ground trembling even here, so far away.

So another of the elders died and a moan traveled through the forest as every living thing here mourned the loss. Well, all except the blind and deaf humans. The saplings that had been her children cried in despair and many would not survive.

"Back to your trees, sisters," one of us whispered. "Our sister is down; we must make shelters for the small ones who are lost."

We murmured our farewells and I wasn't the only one who looked around with dismay, wondering which of us would disappear next. I hurried to my pine and leaned against the bark, feeling the rough texture beneath my fingers, soaking in the scent of resin. I heard the fluttering of little birds in the boughs. I did not want to give up the woods, which were more than the trees, after all. I looked around in the bright morning sun, fearing I might not see it again. The saws could come for me, though I wasn't a very tall pine. I might be saved a while to watch my sisters disappear. Would that be better?

I didn't want to be the last, and the fear drove me into the tree this time, without looking back. The tree trembled with me, needles falling in a rain of green to the ground. I almost lost control, until I felt the ones who sheltered within my wide limbs. The insects were buzzing in distress, the baby raccoons crying in fear. Mama Owl laid over her owlets, protecting them and smaller birds cried out in dismay as they took to the sky.

I must be calm.

I merged closer to the wood, feeling the life moving from ground to the tip of the tree. I calmed and my friends calmed with me, returning to life as it should be. I was aware of distressed animals who fled across the ground and birds swarmed in the air looking for a home that was no longer there. Nests gone with fledglings and eggs; a baby raccoon the only survivor of three, and mother gone as well. I drew the little one closer to me and up into the tree with two others. Normally they would not have accepted him in, but I soothed the way and made peace between them and the others. This was what druids do; we protect our worlds. The tree is not just wood, it's all that lives in it, from the old hawk sitting high in the limbs, letting the sun warm his wings, to the little insects chasing other insects across the bark. A chipmunk scampered up to a low lying branch, panting and worried.
Above us the birds whirled and cried out in dismay. The humans were deaf to the sounds. But we drew them down, little by little, as the day went on. Some would not survive the loss, but we sheltered them. We made them a new world.

And we waited for the saws.

Time passes oddly for dryads and trees. We watch the days, but they blend into variations of light and dark. Generations of birds build nests, raise fledglings, who come back and start over. The seasons come and go. We do not count years. We only know the passage of time as a whisper on the wind, the growth of more trunk and limbs, reaching always towards the sun.

I heard the horrible hum of saws sometimes, but even they eventually passed and I had not noticed. I had stayed in my tree, sheltering and nurturing as I could . . . and waited for the end. They did not just kill the trees, you know. They killed the power of the world that the dryads held. When the magic that holds the world together goes -- the dryads, the nyads, and all the others -- then the world is doomed to fade away and died.

Humans do not believe in magic, but they'll fall just as surely as everything else.

Then I noticed more humans in the woods. They did not come with saws and axes, though. They walked quietly, one or two together, sometimes groups. They spoke softly, but I was still in her tree and could not understand the words.

So I came back out, finally. I stayed in the shadow of my tree and waited. Chipmunks and rabbits gathered at my feet. A lazy fox came by, eying the others with contemplation, though she would not hunt here. A doe and two fawns stayed nearby. We waited.

"Lovely," a human said close by. I saw her reach out and touch my tree. At first I shuddered at the thought . . . Then I realized what she was saying. The man with her spoke so quietly I couldn't hear his words.

They walked on. I waited, a day and another, but other humans came by then. The group of them, pointing out animals, gathering up a few cones to take with them. One dropped a wrapper and another picked it up and chided him. They went on.

The humans had changed.

I wandered to other trees and whispered to my sisters, but they said the same things. The humans had changed. They even planted new trees in places where they had been cut away.

"A park," one said. "That is what I heard. A park and this means protected. At least for now."

At least for now. . . .

I blessed the ones who came by my tree, and hoped that my blessing and love for the forest would spread to others. We are so few, the older dryads. The new trees will take centuries before full awareness will come to them.

I hope we have time to wait.

The End
999 words

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Waiting for the Last Dance, Chapter Three

For a list of posted chapters, please go here

Chapter Three

We had Story Time on Saturday afternoons in the library, and every nanny in the community arrived with their little rug rats. The first few minutes are always chaotic. The Miesen twins, aged six -- and old enough to know better -- inevitably create problems. I had come to dread living across the street from them, fearing the kind of trouble they'd make as they got older. Their nanny -- the fourth one in their six years of life -- didn't look as though she would last much longer, either.

Mrs. Berlin enjoyed doing the readings while Gian and I manned the posts and helped the rest of the people. She had a good voice and a way of holding the children's attention. Sometimes she got my attention, too.

Gian and I had plenty of work, which I appreciated today. I didn't want to think about anything outside the library. Despite Missy's intrusion, I felt as though the building had become a sanctuary. I felt safe here.

Gian wasn't happy. He grunted things when I asked him questions. He shoved magazines away so hard he ripped a cover, and snapped the newspapers back into shape before he pushed them into place. And he glared at me. We began re-shelving books. Gian didn't want to have anything to do with the work and rolled away whenever I tried to make small talk.

When he went back to the desk and happily spoke with Mrs. Berlin, I realized he wanted to get away from me, not the work.

The shock made me ill. I hadn't realized he was angry with me.

"Gian?" I asked as we worked at cleaning the kids' area. He glanced my way, his dark brown eyes glaring. "What did I do?"

"Missy saw you."

"Yes? She saw me what?" But I knew. At first I felt hurt, but the feeling turned to anger in the next breath. I had done nothing wrong. "She saw me drive past the Kimura house on the way back from the park. I got a nice picture of a hummingbird, by the way."

His eyes narrowed and then softened a little. He shook his head. "She told me Akio is there."

"Yes, I saw her arrive. I had stopped to pick some cherry blossoms, but when I saw her, I got the hell out of there."

"Cherry blossoms? From there?"

"Yeah, from there. I . . . I wanted to make amends with Mr. Kimura. I know that sounds stupid, Gian but I felt bad. He lost everything. He was completely alone after Nadine took off. I sure wouldn't want anyone to blame my parents if I did something stupid or cruel."

He blinked several times. The anger disappeared from his face and I felt as though I could breathe again. He stared for a moment and finally shook his head. "I couldn't. I couldn't forgive any of them."

"I don't think you should." He handed me a book from a chair and we went over to the shelves. He kept pace with me and he seemed more troubled than angry. I couldn't imagine everything going through his mind about Akio and her father. "I don't think anyone would expect you to forgive them, Gian. But I don't want to be another Missy and think of no one but myself. I don't want to be anyone but me."

"Good." I caught a glimpse of a little crook of a smile on his lips before he turned away.

I blushed. I know I did. I thought I had grown past that kind of reaction. I also felt very good. I hadn't seen his smile in a long time.

My Gian was coming back again.

We even had fun for the rest of the day. The sky clouded over once more and the rain soon began to pour, which meant we had fewer people during the late afternoon. Mrs. Berlin, the dreaded Library Dragon, went out and bought tacos and we ate them in her office. I think she wanted to help Gian past the awful mood he'd been in. I felt camaraderie with her for the first time and decided maybe I could work a little harder around the library until next fall when I went away to college.

I didn't want to think about the future, not today when things felt so right, here.

An hour before closing we began the final cleaning. We didn't have much left to do. I took about twenty minutes to vacuum, being extra careful to get everything up. Afterwards, I stood and watched the rain outside where the day had gone to a dull gray beyond the windows. I feared Missy might return tonight. I should have expected her to tell Gian about seeing me at the Kimura house. I tried very hard not to be angry at Gian for listening to her.

No one else had come in during the last half hour, so I took a chance and mopped the floor by the door, hoping I wouldn't have to redo the work. I finished and had about fifteen minutes until we truly closed. Mrs. Berlin sat in her office, entering new books into the database. I couldn't see Gian. I found a stack of audio books at the counter and decided to put them away. Busy little person, me. The work helped, and the quiet meant we would likely get out pretty much on time today. Sometimes the library is busy right up until closing.

I found Gian in the periodical section. He had a newspaper on the table in front of him and I knew what he read without looking. I'd seen the story plastered on the front page of the LA Times when I put the paper in the rack earlier. I'd been shocked at first. Sometimes I forget how important AviTen is to the rest of the world and how Seiji Kimura's suicide would draw attention. I had hoped Gian wouldn't see the headlines. Now I wondered if I'd been right to try and protect him.

He turned to me, his face bleak as he pushed back his hair. He used to have longer hair, but he cut it off after the accident. Dark strands curled a little around his face and fell into his eyes. For years I had been jealous of his hair. Mine was mostly straight and ugly. I hate when the guys have better hair than I could buy at a beauty salon.

Gian waved a hand towards the newspaper. "I decided I might as well read what they have to say. Have you?"

"No." I put the audio books on the table. My hands trembled and I didn't want him to see. The reaction came from too much emotional overload today. I glanced at the page but didn't try to read the words. "I don't want to know."

"It's interesting." His voice seemed oddly calm, though he sat too straight, his shoulders tight beneath the pullover he wore. I could see the tenseness in him though he tried to hide his emotions. "Did you know some people are saying --" he leaned forward, his finger moving across a line of print -- "'Deervale is an elitist private community, hiding their secrets behind a veil of riches and anonymity, always one step short of a scandal.'"

"Sounds a lot more interesting than the Deervale where I live," I replied, and then regretted being so flippant -- at least until he grinned.

"They talk about the accident, too." His finger moved over the paper as he searched for the information. I felt my mouth go dry and my heart pound a little harder. I was the one who didn't want to relive what had happened. "I don't remember much from then. I felt strange, reading about myself. They got my name wrong. Gino Calabria? Sounds like someone out of those gangster movies my mother loves."

He seemed ready to talk, so I plunged in. We kind of acted as though nothing had changed, despite the wheelchair. I think keeping a distance from the accident had helped both of us to pretend to normality while we recovered in our own ways.

"What do they say?" I asked, steeling myself for a dark glare and anger.

Instead, I saw a hint of pain in his eyes, which was worse. I wanted to take my question back. I didn't care about the stupid article. I started to reach for the paper --

He caught my wrist in a gentle hold. "No," he said. "Not reading doesn't help. It's long past time I started dealing with everything."

"I can read for myself," I whispered, my voice trembling. I didn't try to pull out of his hold and I was sorry when he let go. I sat in the chair by him because my legs felt wobbly.

"No, I'll read it." He pulled the newspaper closer and I watched him, while trying to gauge his emotions and attempting to control my own. I put my trembling hands on the table and tried very hard to appear calm. "I won't read the stuff about Mr. Kimura. I don't know how I feel about what happened yet. I don't like the way they made him seem a bad guy. You were right, you know. He didn't have anything to do with the accident."

I said nothing. I couldn't imagine being in Gian's place and the turmoil he must be going through. I thought I could blame Mr. Kimura for creating more trouble, but no. I would not blame the victim -- the other victim no one noticed because he wasn't in a wheelchair, too.

"Here." Gian tapped the paper in front of him. I thought his hand trembled and I regretted having encouraged him. "Nearly seventeen months ago the closed and secretive community was rocked by the attempted murder of high school student Gino Calabria. Arrested and charged with attempted vehicular homicide was 17-year-old Akio Kimura, daughter of the late Seiji Kimura. Testing showed Miss Kimura was drugged at the time, and shock over the incident sent her into what doctors and psychologists called a catatonic state. Miss Kimura was remanded to a private facility where she spent the next thirteen months and afterwards went to a private school out of the country." He glanced at me and this time frowned. "Did you know she was out?"

"Yes. She sent me a note from England," I said, and hastily added, "I never read the letter, though. I saw the name and the postmark is all."

"Why do I make you nervous?" I was too used to looking down at him, and I found staring straight into his dark brown eyes disconcerting. Then I felt better, realizing this made us equals once more. "I never used to make you nervous."

"You don't," I answered, which wasn't entirely true. "I wish none of this had happened."

"Well, you and me both." He surprised me with an unexpected laugh. "Let's finish here. I want to get home to dinner. Mama made lasagna today. Want to come over and have some with me?"

"I'd love to." My stomach began to growl at the thought of dinner at his house. His mother was the best chef I'd ever known, and I had missed the wonderful, home cooked Italian food more than I liked to think about. I'd probably lost some weight, though, since I stopped going over. I couldn't figure out how his mother stayed so thin, except she had a lot of work with all those kids.

My stomach growled again.

Gian heard the sound and laughed. It felt wonderful, seeing him happy, even at my expense, so I laughed as well. We finished the work, putting some last books away and cleaning the counter. I prayed no one came in to slow us from leaving, or worse, to bring some news which would ruin the night. I dreaded the possibility with a kind of dull, growing pain every time a car seemed to slow going past.

Mrs. Berlin turned off most of the lights and prepared to lock up as we left. I barely remembered to call home and say I was going to eat with the Calabrias so mom didn't make anything special for me. She sounded pleased, which made me blush yet again and I didn't even know why this time.

Gian didn't bother to call his parents about me coming over. There's always been an open invitation to eat at their house, but I hadn't been there . . . in a long time. I was glad we'd reached some sort of understanding. Then I was more honest with myself and admitted I had found the courage to accept Gian the way he is and not hold on to the memory of the boy who had danced --

I shoved the thought away. I didn't want him to see regrets in my eyes. Not tonight.

"I don't think the rain is ever going to stop," Gian complained as we hovered near the door, waiting for his father to arrive. "I hate being stuck inside all the time, but going out in the wheelchair is uncomfortable. I might be more on my feet in a few months."

"Great!" I worried because I didn’t want him to think I would be unhappy if he wasn't on his feet, but I wanted him to know I cared -- my stomach began to knot at the thought of trying to balance my words.

He glanced at me and frowned again. I began parsing my way through a major speech but his father's arrival saved me from any further distress.

I walked in the rain with Gian as we went down the ramp. A cold breeze blew past as we reached the sidewalk and I shivered at the feel of icy water running down my neck.

"Hello, Mr. Calabria."

"Good evening, Marisha," he answered. He was always so proper, and his accented English very precise. Gian could speak Italian like a native, but he'd lived most of his life in Deervale, and he didn't have an accent unless he wanted one.

"Mar is coming over for lasagna," Gian said as he pulled himself into the car seat.

I saw his father freeze in mid-movement before he gave me the most dazzling smile I'd ever seen from the man. "Good. I'll see you at the house, then?"

"I'll be there in a few minutes. I'm going to take my car home and walk over."

"In the rain?" Mr. Calabria shook his head. "No, no. Take your car home and we'll follow and you can ride with us."

"I only live next door!" I protested with a laugh.

"There is a football field of land between us," he answered and sounded adamant. "We'll wait. No sense you getting wet."

I saw Gian look surprised and pleased. Well hell. I didn't care for walking in the rain much anyway.

"Okay. Thanks! I'll get my car!"

I darted around the side of the building, slowing when I almost slipped. No, no. I had to be adult about this. And not giggle. I wanted to giggle.

I hurried into the lot, past Mrs. Berlin's car and over to mine. One more sat in a nearby spot, and I turned with a start when the door popped open.

Missy stepped out into the rain. Not exactly who I wanted to see, of course, but I'd been watching too many police shows lately, and the door opening had scared the hell out of me. I was so relieved to see Missy that I stood right there while she came at me, her face lost behind the shadow of her wide brimmed hat. She wore those stupid heels and appeared wobbly and half drunk. Maybe more than half. She caught hold of the car when she neared, and for a moment I thought she might pass out before she even spoke.

Not tonight! I was not going to let Missy ruin this evening for me!

"I saw you with Akio," she mumbled the words hardly discernible.

"No, you didn't," I answered. She stopped and I could see her frown, confused. She swayed a little when she let go of the car: drugged, drunk and stupid. And I was stuck with her for the moment. She annoyed the hell out of me this time. "All you saw was me in a car outside the Kimura's house. I never spoke with Akio and, in fact, I never got out of the car."

"Odd you were there when she arrived, don't you think?" she demanded, her words precise. The accent had disappeared. She obviously couldn't manage real words and a fake accent at the same time when she was drunk.

"I don't know. What were you doing there when she showed up?"

She stopped all movement and her breath caught. Apparently she didn't like being accused of the same thing she was accusing me of -- whatever that might be.

"I don't have time for this, Missy. And shouldn't you get out of the rain before you melt or something?"

Her lips drew back in a little snarl. I wasn't sure if she caught the allusion or not. "Gian knows about you and Akio." She leaned closer. I could smell the liquor on her breath this time. "I told him."

"Yes, I know. He told me. We might talk about it more tonight. I'm going to his house for dinner."

"You're lying." Her voice went icy and her eyes focused fully on me this time. Not pleasant. I didn't want that kind of attention. "I told him about you and Akio and he was mad at you. He was --"

The Calabria van backed up and pulled into the lot. They must have thought I was having car problems. Missy stared, shaking her head when Gian stuck his head out the car window.

"Is there a reason you two are standing out here in the rain? Come on, Mar! I want to get home to dinner, and if we don't hurry there won't be any garlic bread left!"

Missy looked as though her brain was trying desperately to figure out what Gian meant. I got into the car and closed the door, though I wasn't going to move until she got out of the way. I started the car and she swayed a little and caught hold of the roof.

I rolled down the window, shaking my head with absolute disgust. I didn't want Missy to ruin my night and I feared Gian and his father would drive away and abandon me with her. I knew we couldn't leave her here, too drunk to drive home safely. I wasn't going to risk Missy getting into an accident and having her stupidity on my conscience.

Mr. Calabria climbed out of the van and walked around the front, ignoring the rain. I had never seen such distaste on his face. He was not a happy man, and I felt bad he had to come out of the car and save me from a drunken teen. I should have shoved her to the ground and driven away. He stopped by Missy and frowned at her before he turned to smile at me.

"Marisha, would you drive the van home and allow me to take your car?"

"Yeah, sure." I probably appeared as confused as Missy. I got back out and handed him the keys. He smiled, though far less brightly than he had when he found out I was coming to dinner. "There's no reason for the two of you to be any later for your food. I have already eaten. Tell Betta I'll be there soon."

"Okay," I said, and took his keys.

Awful trusting, I thought, to not only give me his van, but put his son into my care as well. Gian rolled his window up as I got in, and wiped rain off his face with the edge of his shirt sleeve.

"Let's go," Gian urged. "Dad used the cell phone to call the cops, and I don't want to be here when Missy throws one of her fits. There was no way she should be out in this condition, though. We couldn't leave her, but I don't think you and I want to be here when the police arrive."

"True." I eased the car forward. I had driven my father's SUV a few times, so I knew the feel of larger vehicles. "She's not the only one going to have a fit. Her mother is going to be calling your house at all hours."

"Won't be the first time," he said, and leaned back.


"Yeah. Missy showed up drunk when the hospital transferred me to the clinic here. In fact, she showed up twice. Old Man Avi had a talk with her parents. I wouldn't want to be them, or Missy, when he hears about this one. And he will."

I nodded and kept my foot from pressing harder on the gas pedal, as though I could outrun the backlash from this new problem. A police car went past us as we turned the first corner -- barely away in time. I glanced back to see the police turning into the library parking lot. I hated to worry Mrs. Berlin, but they'd let her know there was no real trouble.

"I wonder why Missy acts this way," I said.

"Because as long as she's drunk and stoned out of her mind, she doesn't have to face the fact she's an annoying little bitch without a real friend in the world."

I braked at the stop sign, glanced at him once, and drove on, saying nothing.

"I sounded awful, didn't I?" He shifted in the chair, but I didn't think the reaction came from physical pain. "I shouldn't be this way, but for the last year she's been trying to worm her way into my world, and I don't want her there. Hell, the first thing she did when I got out of the hospital was offer to get me some coke so I could forget about all my horrible problems."

"You're joking." I had suspected about her and drugs, but he provided proof of the kinds of things she'd gotten into. "Why the hell would she do that?"

He silently stared at his hands but I figured things out quickly enough.

"She's got a crush on you."

He gave a quick, sullen nod. "Yeah. And it's pretty sick, too. She wasn't interested at all until I was in the wheelchair." I saw him swallow and I felt a little ill at the thought, too. "She gives me the creeps, Mar. I have to be careful not to be alone anywhere in school or she finds me."

"Have you told anyone else?"

"No. I don't want to make a big deal out of this. I mean especially now, when there's only a week of school left. I trust you."

My heart beat a little harder. I felt my cheeks flush and wished to hell they would stop! At least he couldn't see clearly in the dark car. "I don't know if I can help you with her. I can't talk to her, Gian. She doesn't care for me."

"I noticed. I thought you ought to know she's been acting stranger than usual the last couple days. Finding out you're coming to dinner at my house might make her angry, if she can find enough brain cells to create a real emotion."

"She seems to do anger just fine." I shrugged and turned on to Doe Drive, heading closer to home. Another car passed us, but otherwise, no one seemed to be out tonight. Time to change the subject. "Is your brother still in Italy?"

"Yes, but he's going to come home for my graduation," Gian replied. His voice softened. "I haven't seen him in a long time."

I heard the whisper of unspoken words. He hadn't seen Pio since the accident. I remembered how Pio who was eight years older than Gian and used to race him around the yard. He taught us both to roller skate. He'd never learned to speak English as well as his father and he jumped at the chance to go to college in Italy. I'd missed him, and I imagined he could have helped Gian if he had been around.

Gian stared at his hands. We were getting close to home.

"You'll be fine, Gian. It's not like you aren't still you," I said, hoping I wasn't overstepping our newly reformed bond.

We reached Badger Boulevard. I slowed. Having the time alone together seemed to be helping both of us. He stopped examining his fingers.

"I've changed, Mar." His face looked bleak, his eyes almost lost. His hands moved to his legs and rested there. "I'm not the same."


He began to get mad but suddenly grinned instead. "You have such a way with words."

"I use precise words. That's what Mr. Tarkin says about my writing, anyway."

"No one wanted to be around me much for a while. I thought I must have changed."

"Damn, Gian." I stopped at the corner, half a block from his house, and turned to face him. I'd been an idiot and he'd suffered for it. "I'm sorry. I really am. I was so afraid I would do something stupid, say something without thinking -- hurt you --"

"Hey." His hand touched my arm. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."

"It's all right. I made a mistake, Gian. I was too worried about how I felt. I'm past that stupidity now."

"Good. Let's get to the house. I'm starved."

I drove the rest of the way and slowed at the driveway, but didn't turn in. "Maybe we should wait at my house and give your father a ride home, since he was going to give me one."

"He won't melt."

"Neither would I."

"Come on, Mar. I'll starve!"

I relented and pulled into the driveway before I considered a new problem. "How do we get you out of here?"

"You bring the chair around and make sure the brakes are on. I get myself into it. Don't worry."

I was drenched from my encounter with Missy and I didn't care. Something had lifted from my heart in the last few hours. I hadn't even known I'd been carrying so much guilt for something I had nothing to do with. Right now, cliché as it was, I could have been dancing in the rain.

We had no trouble getting him into the chair, though we both got drenched, and Mr. Calabria drove by as I pushed Gian toward the door. He honked and we waved. I saw him pull into the driveway and go up to my house. I wondered what he was going to tell my parents.

Gian's mother was at the door with towels for both of us. She fussed a bit, chattering in Italian, and Gian gave her a few quick answers in the same language. I heard Missy's name and saw his mother frown. She patted me on the arm, smiled, and ushered us into the dining room.

I felt wonderful. Accepted.

The food tasted as heavenly as I remembered and I ate way too much. My mother tends to fix good, solid American food. Not a lot of spices, though, and I love spicy food. I tried really hard not to make a pig of myself.

Mr. Calabria came in, coffee cup in hand. He sat at the table with us, which surprised me. I felt as though Gian and I had gone from kids to adults.

"They took Missy home," he said. "She's lucky they did not do worse. The language she used!"

"I can imagine." I forced myself not to stuff more lasagna into my mouth. I even pushed the plate away. "She wasn't happy tonight."

"Such a shame to see a young woman with a bright future take the wrong road," he replied and turned to me. "You are ready for graduation?"

"Ready?" I asked. "Is anyone ever really ready?"

"I would guess not." He nodded, as though I had said something profound.

I caught a glimpse of Marie Lisa and Umberto, the two youngest, hovering by the dining room doorway and watching us. I felt like an alien invited to dinner. So I made a face at them and they ran screeching and laughing.

"Little rug rats," Gian mumbled and looked embarrassed. I probably shouldn't have teased the kids.

"Gian has no patience for the younger ones," his mother said. She sat at the table as well. It was unprecedented.

After I got over the shock, we had a nice long discussion about the weather and school. I had forgotten life could be this good.