Ichabod Chapter 5

The Introduction

 

It was past noon when Baird turned off of the back woods highway we had been traveling all morning. Our route took us down a paved drive flanked on either side by six-foot tall stone wolves. The large statues stood at attention, atop square pedestals, their unseeing eyes staring outward. Behind these sentinels, rows of hedges loomed toward the sky, stretching away to connect seamlessly with the thick forest, creating an impenetrable wall of green that made it impossible to see what might be beyond. I hesitated only a moment before turning my car after Baird’s tortured looking truck.

Beyond the hedgerow lay an over-grown lawn spreading out before us, seemingly forever. Twisting up from the tall grasses weeping willows stood in what appeared to be precise lines, but they were far enough apart that I couldn’t be sure. Blue and yellow wild flowers were in full bloom, for some reason, they made me think of Erin.

“You can call her you know.” Zoe, smiled. I wasn’t looking at her but I could tell.

“How do you do that?”

“Do what?” Her surprise might have been sincere. Maybe.

“Read my mind. Is that part of what we can do?” If it was then she was definitely teaching me how to do it. I’d find a way to make her.

“Don’t be paranoid. I can’t read your mind.” She rolled her eyes. “You had the same look on your face just now as when you spent the entire movie staring at Erin.”

I felt my cheeks redden. I hadn’t realized anyone had been aware of my preoccupation. At least she couldn’t read my mind. “Great. Nothing like being exposed as a slobbering horn dog.”

“Relax. She didn’t even notice.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Because she was really surprised when I told her.”

I might have retorted to her clever remark, I was certainly planning to, but the manor came suddenly into view.

“This thing must be visible from space.” I muttered in awe.

The building before me was immense. Its size seemed to defy comprehension. Constructed of maroon colored brick and some sort of red wood, gleaming as though it had been polished every day for a hundred years, the Manor was easily six stories high. It was capped by a cathedral like steeple containing a large stained-glass window, depicting a wolf among storm clouds. A wide, rounded balcony extended from the second floor out over the front entrance, creating a sheltered parking area, its outer edges supported by a trio of thick stone pillars sculpted to resemble wolves.

“It’s beautiful,” Zoe breathed, leaning forward in her seat.

I couldn’t disagree, but I wanted to. I had an unshakable feeling of unease crawling on spindly legs up my spine. The size and magnificence of the structure before me was intimidating, but it wasn’t that-or rather, it wasn’t only that-which made me uneasy. The thought washing my body in a cold sweat was that my father, and maybe my mother too, had run from this place-he had even changed his name. Despite all of the obvious splendor, my parents hadn’t wanted any part of this place. The thought gave the building a sinister countenance.

I followed Baird’s example and parked beneath the over-hanging balcony, opposite the front entrance. I noticed the driveway looped by the front steps and led away to several outbuildings, one of which looked like an old horse stable converted into a garage. I wondered how many cars it held. It couldn’t possibly be as many as it’s length and number of doors suggested.

Baird stepped out of his truck, his sheathed sword in one tightly clenched fist, and shot me a strange look as he passed by the hood of my car.

“Stay here for a minute,” I instructed Zoe, hoping she would listen to me for once. Something about that look had urged caution.

“Is something wrong?” I could hear fear in her voice, which I hated, but I hoped it would keep her in the car.

“I’m not sure. Just stay here.” I answered and quickly followed after Baird. He was standing at the base of the rounded brick steps leading up to the elegant front doors of the Manor. He stood like a man awaiting judgement; nervous and defiant. I stood beside him, a little puzzled and a lot scared.

The doors opened outward slowly, ominously, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Baird stiffen as a huge bear of a man emerged. Dressed completely in black, from his thick trench coat and turtleneck to his slacks and loafers, the russet-skinned beast paused at the top the steps to run big hands over his slicked-back hair. Black of course. The style was odd, shaved clean on the sides to just above the ears. “Baird” He acknowledged in a German accent, baring gleaming white teeth in a menacing smile, as he adjusted dark wrap around shades.

“Rudy.” Baird returned with exaggerated casualness and a slight smirk.

“I trust everything went well?” Big Red’s tone sounded disinterested.

“Sorry Rudy, I really don’t see how that’s any of your business.” I must have been imagining the taunting edge in Baird’s gravelly voice. Either that, or he was crazy. As loud as it was, there was no mistaking the sound of the big guy grinding his teeth.

“You try my patience sword-bearer”

“Yeah well, you’re an employee here. You’ll live with it.” Baird’s smirk slipped from his face like a silk veil “Or you could die that way.”

“I hope there is not some sort of trouble here.” Both men straightened at the sound of this new voice. Rudy stepped aside as another man emerged from the Manor, ducking under the door frame. While Rudy had been, up to that point, the largest man whom I had ever seen, this man was monstrous! I blinked, trying to make my eyes agree with my mind about what was physically possible. How could anyone be so gargantuan? Almost seven feet tall, his huge bald head sat atop a bull-neck and truly massive shoulders. He had the same dark gray eyes I was beginning to associated with all the men of my family and his dark brown beard was neatly trimmed along his jaw line, widening as it met his moustache. He was wearing a light gray suit that looked like it cost about as much as my car, with a deep crimson tie which matched the leather gloves stretched tightly over fists almost as big as my head.

“Theodore.” Baird inclined his head in a gesture of respect seeming at odds with the barely restrained anger I heard in his voice.

“Baird” Theodore’s voice was molten steel and his thin smile could have sliced concrete. “Am I to assume you are behind the sudden shift in the weather patterns?”

“Couldn’t be helped.” Baird’s jaw clenched as he answered. He didn’t look Theodore directly in the eye, rather he stood staring straight ahead at a point somewhere on Theodore’s chest.

“And what, exactly, was so important that I must have Alexander spend a great deal of his precious time fixing the weather?” Theodore’s gloved fists shook at his sides.

“Tradition. The funeral.” Baird’s voice was clipped and cold as chipped ice. The tension in the air was thick enough that I could feel layers of built up anger between these two-it was obviously something going far beyond their current disagreement. Whatever that was.

Theodore held his glare on Baird for a moment longer. Then visibly relaxed. “Yes, of course. The funeral. Tradition.” He nodded thoughtfully as he turned to smile down at me. It seemed less angry. “This must be young Ichabod.” He looked me over, his eyes scouring every follicle and clogged pore, his smile, turning slightly sour. While he continued to speak to Baird those eyes never left me. “Baird this boy looks as though he might kill himself trying to light a candle. I expect you to remedy this.”

I wasn’t entirely sure what his words meant, but I understood that some kind of insult was implied. I felt my face flush with anger and embarrassment. I locked stares with the bald behemoth. There was no way I was going to let him know how intimidated I was. I had managed to hold stares with Baird, mostly; I could manage this, too. Unfortunately, I wasn’t fooling Theodore any more than I had Baird.

“Top of my to-do list.” Baird answered

Theodore again began nodding, but stopped short, focusing his attention over my shoulder-just as I heard the distinct sounds of a car door open and then close behind me. Why couldn’t the little twerp ever listen to me?

“And this must be the lovely Zo….” His voice cut off with a small strangled noise that sounded odd coming from such a mountainous man. The smile which had begun to slink across his face froze into a grimace.

I turned to see Zoe, standing beside me now, at a loss to explain what about her could possibly elicit such a reaction? For her part, Zoe stared back up at Theodore with a smirk very similar to Baird’s. What the hell? I was getting the feeling there was a lot going on I didn’t understand. I couldn’t tell if the low growl was coming from Baird, Theodore or me. I guess it could have been the other guy; Rudy? I stepped protectively in front of Zoe, trying to prepare myself to face-off against the giants. Problem was, I was no David and there were TWO Goliath’s.

The moment I interposed between their locked stares Theodore recovered himself with a minute shake and on oily smile. “Pretty girl.” His voice had become stiff, formal, neutral. “I want her put under Genevieve’s tutelage.”

I saw Baird and Rudy both flinch and wondered what Theodore’s words could portend. Baird spoke before I could ask. “I don’t think….”

“The decision has been made!” Theodore whirled towards him, fists shaking and his gray eyes alight with barely controlled fury. “What you think is irrelevant!” His snarl broke, mid-sentence, becoming a bellow of rage. Baird’s eyes tightened as the bore back into Theodore’s, but he nodded his acceptance. Theodore’s calm returned instantly, he even chuckled and straightened his tie. “Good. Rudolph and I will be in Toronto until the Summit. Try not to demolish the Manor in my absence.” He laughed at his own joke, striding off in the direction of the garage, the unjolly red giant following close behind him. “I expect to see progress by the time I return.” He called back over his shoulder with a joviality somehow more menacing than any of his angry outbursts had been.

Holy crap. My parents had run because their family was mad. Stark raving mad. Was this where my fits of rage came from? Was it genetic? Zoe had said our…. thing, was hereditary. When Theodore had finally disappeared from sight all three of us exhaled audibly. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one the Big Bad Baldy had that effect on.

“Someday,” Baird growled from behind clenched teeth.

“I don’t suppose you’d mind telling me what the hell that was all about?” I asked without any real hopes of actually getting an answer.

“Nope,” Baird replied, still staring in the direction Theodore had gone.

“Screw this. Come on Zoe, let’s get outta here.” I grabbed her by the hand to lead her away.

“Itch…” Her tone held a warning.

“You’re not going anywhere punk.” Baird’s free hand barred me from my car.

“I’m beyond fed up with this crap. If you don’t…..”

He was fast. Too fast. So Fast, I didn’t realize he was moving until I felt his hand wrap around my throat and the back of my head slam off of the hood of my car. Bright colors exploded across my vision. It could have been the painful head trauma, but I thought we had been at least a half dozen feet from the car only a second before. Baird’s blazing gray eyes were the first thing that penetrated the psychedelic fireworks display, followed quickly by his face, and although his voice was politely conversational, small flecks of foam collected at the corners of his mouth as he spoke, “You were about to speak fighting words.” His iron grip on my throat tightened infinitesimally. “To me.” He paused, allowing me a moment to fully appreciate my predicament, I didn’t like my chances. “Do you honestly think that was a good idea?” his hand loosened enough for me to shake my head. “Good. Because if you ever speak fighting words to me, we’re going to fight. And you’re going to lose. Am I making myself clear?”

I nodded as best as I could in assent.

He held me for a second longer, then in one liquid motion pulled me to my feet and released me. I barely noticed. I was too busy trying no to wet myself. I was far beyond trying to hide my intimidation this time, I couldn’t even stop myself from trembling. I had never been so terrified. It was more than being afraid of Baird, which I most certainly was, it was gut churning fear of recognition threatening to shake me to pieces. Recognition of that familiar glow in Baird’s eyes. The same glow I’d seen reflected in the mirror during my fits. I felt sick. It was hereditary, and apparently it would get worse. Judging my Baird and Theodore. It wouldn’t be safe for Zoe to be around me, for anyone. For Erin.

“Are you okay Itch?” I felt Zoe’s tiny hand slip into mine and give it a reassuring squeeze. How long until just that simple gesture became too dangerous?

“He’s fine,” Baird answered for me as he walked up the steps toward he still open front door. “Are you punks coming?”

“Itch?” Zoe’s voice sounded very far away for some reason.

“I’m okay.” I lied a little breathlessly and, with some effort, forced myself to follow Baird into the Manor. Amazingly, and to my relief, I was able to walk without my legs wobbling.

Beyond a small anteroom, housing various coats and boots we passed an inner door. Less ornate than anything outside, this door was heavy, bound in studded iron bands running from it’s pointed hinges, and old. I crossed beyond its threshold expecting a dungeon. Initially, all I could see were the multitudinous glittering of dust motes floating in the bars of light slanting in from windows high above and behind me. Once my eyes adjusted to the Manor’s strange play of light on shadow I felt my jaw slowly drop. Literally drop. I tried to take in the entire sight, but there was simply too much.

We had entered into a huge hall, from which dozens of ornately carved sliding oak doors led off in every direction. Between each door, the walls were covered with countless portraits in ostentatious gold frames that, from the few I could see clearly, depicted men and women from a myriad of different time periods. Or Halloween parties. Across from us a wide staircase swept up to the second floor, which apparently spread out from the railed balcony looking down on us as it wrapped around the entire hall. The design seemed to have been built for the singular purpose of drawing attention up to the impossibly large chandelier hanging from the vaulted ceiling-a ceiling so high up it made me dizzy to look at it. What was up with everything being so big?

“I’m going to get lost in here.” I realized aloud.

“Nothin to it.” Baird slapped me on the shoulder. Hard.

“I’ll draw you a map.” He chuckled and headed for the stairs.

Okay, maybe he was bi-polar or something.

I made sure I had a firm grasp on Zoe’s hand before I followed. I had the feeling paranoid thought that my tiny little sister would disappear amid all the space and grandeur. As we walked across the long hall, I got a better look at the many portraits we passed. For the most part, it was easy to tell all of these . people were related: this one had that one’s nose, or chin or bearing, but there was one trait every single one of them had in common.

“They all have gray eyes,” I pointed out.

Baird turned and followed my gaze to the nearest portrait. It depicted a wiry young man dressed in the regalia of the quintessential cowboy, he even had a six-gun belted to his waist. The brass plaque on the bottom bore the bold inscription “Jasper Cayce 1831-1901”.

“Course they do. All Cayce’s have gray eyes.”

“I don’t,” Zoe said beside me.

“You’re young yet, Squirt, maybe they’ll change color.” He turned quickly and began walking again.

“It just means you’re special,” I reassured her.

“That’s sweet, Itch, but I’m not six.” She rolled her eyes.

“Fine, weirdo.” I pushed the back of her head lightly and she laughed.

At the top of the staircase, we headed directly across to a door that opened onto a narrow, less ornate, flight of stairs. These stairs made a slow spiral upward. Stopping at several small landings and then heading upward again at a different angle. I thought it was four, maybe five, flights of stairs later that we reached a simple wood door at the head of a long hallway sloping downward into darkness.

“Billy always told me your kind of a loner,” Baird explained as he swung the door inward. “So I figured you’d like a room away from everyone else.

My new room had obviously been an attic a short time ago. Cobwebs still clung to the exposed beams that ran from the floor to the peaked ceiling. An antique four-poster bed and a large desk covered with tiny drawers sat side by side in the center of the room atop a large oval rug that might have once been brown or orange but was now neither. A naked bulb hung from the ceiling by a thick electrical cord, however, the room was currently illuminated by sunlight sparkling in through the round stained-glass window I had noticed from outside. A standing wardrobe stood along the opposite wall next to a slightly ajar door, which looked like it led into a bathroom. My own bathroom. Sweet.

“There’s a laptop and a cellphone in the desk. They’re yours,” Baird off-handedly. “I’ll have the Bean-pole run your stuff up to you later. Relax here for now. I’ve gotta run the Squirt down to her new digs.”

“I’ll come with you.” I offered.

“Relax. She doesn’t need you to baby-sit her, I’m passing her off to her baby-sitter. Besides, it’s the South wing. No boys allowed.”

“But you just said that you….”

“No boys allowed, Punk. No boys.”

“It’s alright Itch.” Zoe gave my had a final squeeze.

“I’m much too adorable for anyone to want to hurt me.”

“if anybody tries, just threaten to give them a make-over,” I joked and gave her a hug. I hoped there would never come a day when I would be too dangerous to hug my little sister.

“I know Erin gave you her numbers and email, so no excuses.” She smiled and reached up to flick the tip of my nose as she backed of the room.

Once they were gone I turned towards the desk, all of my thoughts focused on the cell phone concealed within. Should I call her? It seemed like a ridiculously unimportant question given everything that had happened, but it still made me sweat as if my life hung in the balance. What would I say? I certainly couldn’t tell her the truth, not if I didn’t want her to think I was completely off my nut. But what did that leave? I pulled the tiny scrap of paper Erin had given me out of my pocket and set it on the desk where I could stare at it. Some desperate part of me hoped the sight would somehow inspire the answers I needed. I sat heavily on the edge of the bed and tried to clear my mind. It didn’t work, all I could see was a pair of clear light green eyes. I dug out the cellphone and dialed the number at the top of the paper before I could talk myself out of it. I still had no idea what I would say.

She answered in the middle of the second ring.

“Hello?” Erin’s voice was slightly breathless.

“Erin?” I asked unnecessarily and immediately felt stupid for doing so.

“Ichabod?” Did she sound happy? Nervous? Irritated? My mind sprinted ahead, asking questions I had no way to answer. There was a long silence as I struggled for something to say, hopefully something that didn’t sound completely moronic.

“Ichabod? Is that you?”

“Um, yeah. Hi.” I suck. I smacked the heel of my palm into my forehead in admonishment-also hoping to kick start my brain.

“Hi.” Another long silence followed, then. “Are you still there?”

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just, well, I’m trying to figure out what to say. It’s not going so well. I probably should have thought it through before I called, but I couldn’t stop thinking about you and I wanted to hear your voice.” So much for kick starting my brain. Maybe I didn’t have one. I almost hung up in embarrassment.

“Wow,” she breathed. “Now I’m the one who doesn’t know what to say.”

“Sorry, I’m an idiot.”

“You’re refreshingly honest.”

“And an idiot.” I insisted miserably. I was an idiot. Rather than looking after my little sister, or maybe using my alone time to mourn my parents, I was talking to a beautiful girl and making a mess of it. Not to mention feeling guilty about it. When had I become so complicated? It had been only a few days ago that it had seemed like all I needed was my music and my car to be happy. Or something like happy. That was before my date with Erin and before my parent’s murder-would I go back to undo the latter, if it meant undoing the former?

“Are you okay?”

Ah, our perennial question. “Yeah,” I lied, and hated myself for it. I didn’t want to lie, not to her, but I didn’t know how to tell her the truth-even the parts of it that wouldn’t make me sound like a raving lunatic.

“You don’t sound like you’re okay.” She was silent, the only sound her breathing. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“I miss you,” I blurted and felt like an idiot. Again. She sighed before answering. “I miss you, too.”

“Is that such a bad thing?” I asked trying to figure out why I would ask a question I felt sure I didn’t want to know the answer to. Stupidity probably.

“No, not bad,” She explained slowly. “Just weird. We don’t really know each other.”

I was about to tell her how ridiculous that was, of course I knew her, when it hit me-she was right. I hadn’t given it much thought before, but I really didn’t know her. All of the time I had spent staring at her I had imagined what she would be like, I had dreamed about who she was, but I didn’t know her. All of these feelings turning my thoughts into chaos were for my idealized version of Erin, not Erin herself. The realization filled me with intense shame. Great. That was all I needed, something else to feel guilty about. I had always imagined my love to be pure, but now I had to admit that maybe it wasn’t love at all-maybe my Erin and the Erin had nothing in common. I had just told Zoe I didn’t really know Erin, but I hadn’t believed it, it had just been my way to avoid answering her question. Was it even possible to be in love with a girl who only existed inside of your head? Was there any basis for my over whelming feelings?

“Are you still there?” Her voice startled me from my reverie.

“Yeah. Sorry.” How could I explain to her? Why did I never have the right words? Hold on, hadn’t I already decided that, for some crazy reason, the truth worked for Erin and me? Maybe I could tell her part of the truth, the part about how I felt. There was still the possibility I would sound like a raving lunatic, but I decided to risk it. “I was just thinking that you’re right. We don’t really know each other, but I know how I fell and I know I want the chance to find out if it’s real.”

“How do you do that?” she whispered. I wasn’t sure if she had meant for me to hear.

“Do what?”

“Doesn’t matter,” She laughed. “ I….I feel the same way.”

“Really?” Maybe the receiver on this phone was broken and I’d heard her wrong.

“Yes really. Don’t sound so surprised.”

“Okay, Okay, this is good.” I couldn’t seem to stop myself from smiling. “So where do we start?”

“I don’t think we need to try to fit it all into one phone conversation.”

We tried anyway. Our conversation became easy. Conversation was never easy for me. We talked about everything-you know, almost-neither one of us mentioned my parents and I steered clear of anything likely to get me committed in the real world. Everything else. She told me about her dream of someday traveling the globe and shared with me her guilty pleasure for 80’s rock ballads-which I thought was hilarious. I told her about my dream of someday driving cross-country in my car and shared with her the frustrations that came with being Zoe’s big brother-which she thought was hilarious. It was hours later when I heard her mother call her for dinner.

“Call me tomorrow?” She asked.

“Absolutely.”

I was practically floating when I final hung up, immediately braking into a dance.

“Ahhhh, puppy love.” The gravelly voice coming from my open doorway stopped me cold. I turned slowly to face Baird, who was leaning against the door frame, with his arms folded across his chest.

“What do you know about it?” I asked, annoyed that he had interrupted my moment.

“I know that what you’re feeling right now is mostly the fault of hormones and bad romantic comedies,” he snorted. “Come on, I came to get you for dinner. Figured you’d get lost and starve without an escort.”

I was angry enough to forget that this man terrified me, angry enough that I would’ve told him to go to hell-if I hadn’t realized he was probably right about me getting lost and starving. I spent a quick moment weighing my annoyance against my hunger, and the sheer size of the Manor. My rumbling stomach tipped the scales. “Lead on.”

We walked down the sloping hallway, rather than the stairs leading back down into the entrance hall. It seemed to take forever to navigate through the wide corridors, I only vaguely noticed the antique furnishings everywhere. With each passing minute I found myself being more and more grateful to have a guide. Even if it was Baird. It had just begun to feel more like a hike than a walk through the house when we finally reached our destination, which turned out to be a huge modern kitchen. By this time the huge part wasn’t much of a surprise, every thing here was super-sized. But the modern part….it was the first room I’d seen whose furnishings had been made after the turn of the century. The last century. With all the stainless steel it looked almost like a surgical room, or a morgue.

“Sit down, kid, I’ll make you a sandwich.” He motioned to an uncomfortable looking stool rising out of the floor like a steel mushroom, it was one of a dozen which surrounded the kitchen’s central island.

“When is somebody going to tell me, what’s going on?” I asked as I sat and wondered who was going to eat all of the food he was pulling out.

“I know you’ve got questions and you’re entitled to some of the answers.” He cut a loaf of bread lengthwise. “But not tonight. You’ve already got enough to take in without adding more to the mix.” Amazingly, he actually sounded reasonable.

“Are you bi-polar?”

“Kid,” He said, handing me a thick roast beef sandwich. “They don’t have a word for what I am.”

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Ichabod chapter 4 The Drive

 

“Who is this guy?” I nodded towards the truck ahead of us. “Baird is dad’s younger brother,” she answered evasively.

“And?”

“And, what?”

“Cut the crap Zoe. How do you know this guy?”

“I don’t know why I should tell you,” She sighed. “You’re not going to believe me.”

“Zoe, we were attacked by a guy throwing balls of electricity. I think I a prepared to keep an open mind.”

“Okay. I’ll tell you what I know. It isn’t much though.”

“It’s obviously more than what I know.”

She ignored my attitude, staring silently out through the windshield. “You have to promise to stay calm.”

I almost started to argue. Almost. Instead I nodded and waited patiently until she began.

“It was just before our birthday, two years ago. “As she spoke her shoulders drew forward and her chin dipped into the low whisper of her voice. “Mom had taken us to the lake. You were mad because I didn’t want to swim and Mom made you come with me to the little playground.” She paused, but I didn’t interrupt. Why couldn’t I remember any of this?

“There was an older boy there. He kept following me around, teasing me….asking me things. “She shuddered. I had to remind myself to watch the road. “I told him to leave me alone. I tried to get away from him. I tried. He was so fast….too fast. “She was crying now, tears streaming down her face. My transfixion barely allowed for breath. “He grabbed me by my hair…he…he…pulled me into the woods.”

I would have told her that she didn’t have to go on, didn’t have to tell me anymore, but I couldn’t find my voice and she continued before I could. “You must have heard me scream. He was there. Standing over me, and then you were behind him. You….hit….him.” It was clear from the way she said it that she hadn’t meant I punched him.

“Just like the guy that attacked us” I guessed.

“Just like the guy that killed mom and dad,” she agreed.

I tried to let that sink in for a second. It floated relentlessly. “How is that possible? And why don’t I remember any of it?”

“You promised to stay calm.”

“I’m calm,” I seethed.

She waited until I actually was calmed before continuing. “After you hit him, you passed out. You weren’t moving. You weren’t even breathing,” she started to sob, her voice cracking, becoming as jagged as broken glass. “I thought you were dead. I was so scared. Mom found us. She carried you all the way to the car. She left that boy laying on the ground twitching. Mom and dad were frantic. They took turns holding you trying to get you to open your eyes. That’s when dad called Uncle Baird. He came to stay with us until you got better.”

“How long?”

“Nine days.”

“I was un-conscious for nine days? Don’t you dare tell me to stay calm. Why didn’t they take me to a hospital” How did Baird help me? Is he a doctor?”

“I’m not sure why dad thought uncle Baird could help, but he seemed sure, and even though mom didn’t like it, she let dad make the call.” She looked away, out the window, as she answered.

“Zoe, why didn’t anyone tell me?” I took a deep breath, trying to expel some of the anger bubbling its way through me.

“Mom and Dad didn’t want you to know, they didn’t want me to know, Baird told them they were being naive. They argued about it a lot.

“Screw Mom and Dad! Why the hell didn’t YOU tell me? “

“They told me it was dangerous! They said that if you tried…. you could…you might hurt yourself…. they said you could DIE!” She took a shuddering breath. “Then, the other night, when you saw Chad…I thought you were going to lose it. I thought I was going to lose you!”

Crap. “Zee..” True to form, I had no idea what to say. As dumb as it sounded, it had never occurred to

me that I might mean as much to my little sister as she meant to me.

“Then after…..all of the light…..and the heat.” She grabbed me by the arm. I could feel her hands shivering against my skin. “You have to promise me, Itch. Promise me you won’t try to use it again until Baird says you’re ready!”

“Zoe, relax. I don’t even know what I did, let alone how to try doing it again.”

“You have to promise me!” The intensity of her fear was starting to infect me.

“Okay. I promise, Zee. I promise. Okay?” I reached over and squeezed her hand once, the carefully pried it off of my arm.

“Okay.” She breathed. I must’ve been really messed up to have scared her this much.

“Zee, how is any of this possible?” Why was I whispering?

“I’m not really sure. It has something to do with our family. Who our ancestors were.” At least she was whispering too, it made me feel slightly less foolish.

“So, this thing, it’s genetic?”

“I guess so.”

I focused on the road passing beneath the headlights. It all sounded so crazy, it couldn’t possibly be true. Except it was. I had witnessed some of it firsthand. It’s hard to argue with your own eyes. “So, does that mean the guy who attacked us, that murdered mom and dad, is…. was related to us?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“So dad could…..I wasn’t sure how to finish that question, luckily, I didn’t have to.

“yup.”

“Mom?”

“Her too.”

“Wait. Does that mean Mom and Dad were, were related? To each other?” My voice leapt several octaves as I asked. I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t everyday you found out that you might be the product of an incestuous relationship.

Zoe was quiet for so long I seriously considered reaching over and shaking her.

“Zoe?”

“Oh God. I never thought of that. Is that why they left?” She sounded as horrified as I felt. She inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, and when she spoke again she sounded much more in control of herself. “Let’s just calm down. We don’t have a definite yes to that question.”

“We don’t have a definite no either.” I pointed out.

“Itch! Knock it off, our parents were not related.” She smacked me on the shoulder.

There really wasn’t anything funny about it, but I was finding it especially hard to pass up the opportunity to mess with Zoe just then. I laughed evilly. “Are you sure? You don’t have any webbed toes or anything?”

“This is so not funny,” she scowled. But it didn’t take long for the corners of her mouth to start turning up. Pretty soon she was laughing too. “Just because I’m laughing doesn’t mean anything is funny.”

“Actually, that’s exactly what it means. I get what you mean though. But, true or not, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“It’s not true,” she persisted stubbornly. I hoped she was right.

I stifled a yawn. It had been a long day. I’d woken up from a coma, had to say good-bye to my almost girlfriend, been forced to go on the run, and discovered I belong to a family of imaginary comic book characters. That kind of stuff takes a lot out of you. I needed some time to consider it all-without any new earth-shattering revelations. “So…. Chad Cheney, huh?” I asked to change the subject. I really, really, didn’t want to know about Chad and Zoe, it was the first non-mythical thing I thought of.

“You don’t really want to know, do you?”

“No.” I admitted.

“Too bad. You asked, so now you’ve got to hear it.”

“Fine.” I forced myself to sound interested. “How did you two meet?”

She laughed at my miserable attempt, but answered anyway. “At the mall, of course. Where does any epic love story start?”

“You love that tool?” I blurted. “I mean him. You love him?”

“Relax Itch. You don’t have to worry about Chad being your brother in law.”

“Because it’s illegal?”

“No.” she smacked my shoulder again. “Because I’m not in love with him. He’s just a nice guy, and really cute.”

“Cute? Are you serious right now?”

“Oh yes,” she giggled. “And that body….yum.”

“REALLY do not want to hear this,” I groaned to her amusement.

“Okay, okay.” She laughed at my discomfort. “So what about Erin?”

“What about her?”

“Do you love her?”

I squirmed under Zoe’s scrutiny. “I barely know her.”

“That’s true.” She relaxed her gaze. “She really does like you, you know. I tried to warn her, but she wouldn’t listen.”

“Thanks,” I commented wryly.

“What are sisters for?”

“Good question.”

“Don’t be mean, Ichabod. If you end up marrying that girl, you’ll have me to thank for it.”

“Even if I never see her again, thank you.” I said it with feeling. I meant it.

“Well, you’re welcome,” she responded, sounding uncomfortable all of a sudden.

“So,” I smiled, “Now that I’m no longer completely in the dark, are you going to teach me to do the itching thing?”

“Not a chance.”

It was in the gray of pre-dawn when Baird pulled into a gas station. The place looked like the last bastion of civilization on the road to the edge of the world. A mountain rose up behind it, covered in a thick forest of coniferous trees sweeping down in a great green cascade to nestle around the small, single-story building. The large plate-glass window next to the broken screen door entrance had been almost completely obscured with faded advertisements. Everything from cigarettes to hunting knives lauded by smiling models in aged yellow and washed out pink.

“Fill ‘em both up,” Baird growled at me over his shoulder as he stalked through the screen door, setting off the tinkling of a bell from inside.

Zoe was asleep in the passenger seat, her long golden-brown hair falling around her tiny frame like a silken blanket. She couldn’t have been more adorable if she’d been sucking her thumb. I was glad we’d gotten the chance to end last night on a happy note, joking and teasing each other until she had curled up and fallen asleep. I had a feeling that the next few days were going to be difficult for both of us. The next few days at least. I got out, stretched, and filled up the car and Baird’s ancient truck. Then I sat on hood of my car to wait.

Last night, after Zoe had fallen asleep, I’d tried to make sense of what little I knew. It hadn’t done any good. Largely because I didn’t know anything, but also because what I did know didn’t make any sense. I kept rehashing the events of the last forty-eight hours in my head, the parts I could remember anyway. It was strange missing an entire day, I kept having to remind myself that attack hadn’t happened the night before last. Thinking about that night brought my thoughts back to Erin. I tried to concentrate on other things, important things. Apparently, my brain had already decided what my priorities should be because Erin kept swirling into my thoughts. My memories were slightly soured by the guilt I felt, I kept choosing her over my parents. At least, that’s how it felt. Even soured though, the memories of Erin were still the sweetest I had ever known.

“Thinking about the girl?” Baird’s gravelly voice startled me, I hadn’t heard him walk up. He was holding two canvas bags stuffed with various junk foods. He offered both to me. “Didn’t know how much you punks eat.”

“Thanks.” I took the bags and sat them down on the driver’s seat. Baird took my place on the hood, chewing on a piece of beef jerky.

“How much did the squirt tell ya?” he asked with his mouth full.

“Not enough,” I answered honestly. He nodded as if that had been exactly what he expected. It didn’t seem like he was in any big rush now that we were far from the house. (Would I ever be able to think of it as something other than “the house” now?), so I figured it might be a good time to get some of my questions answered. “What are we?”

He chewed slowly, considering me. “Like I said before, it’s an involved story. We ain’t monkeys though. That’s for sure.”

I took a second to wipe away stray bits of jerky from my face and shirt, then asked the obvious question. “What do monkey’s have to with anything”

“You know, monkeys. Humans,” he explained, swallowing the last of the jerky. “Not the part that counts, anyway.”

“Wait. Are you telling me, we’re…. we’re part human?” I choked. I had nearly asked, “So we’re not human?” but I wasn’t ready to have that particular question answered. I didn’t even want to consider the possibility.

“Don’t remind me,” Baird complained, rubbing the tattoo on his left arm.

“What’s the other part?” I forced myself to ask.

“That’s the part that counts!”

“I’m not going to get a straight answer out of you, am I?”

“Nope.” He stood and stretched. “Once we get to the manor, you’ll get the chance for answers.”

“Well then, how much farther to the Manor?” Impatience tinged the edges of my voice.

“Now what’d I just say?” He laughed as he walked to his truck.

I growled in frustration, shoving the bags off of the driver’s seat as I climbed into the car. I might have also slammed the door.

“I warned you he’s a jerk.” Zoe said sleepily, her eyes still closed and a slight smile on her face.

“If the rest of our relatives are like him, it’s no wonder mom and dad wanted to keep them a secret.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” she yawned, sitting up.

“You have?” When had she had time to think about anything, she’d been sound asleep.

“Yes, Ichabod, I have.”

Despite my annoyance at Baird, I was curious. “So, did you come up with anything?”

“Not much,” she admitted. “But Mom and Dad were murdered Itch, by someone like us. Whatever their reasons were, I’m sure they were good ones.”

“So we need to be careful.” I reasoned

“Don’t worry, Itch. I’ll protect you.”

Ichabod Chapter 3 part 1

CHAPTER 3

THE GOOD-BYE

 

The first thing I noticed was that my mouth was dry. The second thing I noticed was that my entire body hurt. I rolled onto my side and pulled my blanket up over my head, then stopped…wasn’t I supposed to be dead? Had it all been a dream? Hadn’t I already decided it all made much more sense as a dream? I couldn’t decide which part was more fantastic, me having a date with Erin Medrugada or the psychotic human-generator. I snorted to myself and stretched out my arms and legs, careful not to dislodge the blanket, wincing at the aches in my stiff muscles. Had I worked out yesterday and somehow forgotten about it? Maybe that’s why I was so hungry.

“’Bout time you woke up.” Said a gravelly voice which ground my thoughts to a halt. I slowly reached for the corner of the blanket and pulled it down off of my face, blinking in the sudden brightness. When my vision cleared I swallowed once, hard, and wished it hadn’t.

A man leaned against the back of my closed bedroom door. A large man. Wearing black leather boots, steel-toed with thick soles, blue jeans and a white tee shirt stretched tight across a heavily muscled torso. His arms, folded lightly across his chest, were covered in strange tribal tattoos spiraling down from under his sleeves to the back of his hands. For a second, I could have sworn I had seen the ink writhing. Maybe I was still dreaming. Around his neck he wore a crystal, of all things, wrapped in thin gold wire and attached to a thick black cord. His dark brown hair was thick, falling to his shoulders in tangled waves. From the ocean of hair rose an angular face, with a square jaw, covered in dark stubble just short of being a beard. His eyes, though, were easily his most striking feature, deep set under a heavy brow, they were the deep gray of angry storm clouds and seemed to glow with inner lightning. He looked menacing. He looked like a scary biker version of my father.

“Are you ok, Itch?” I looked down toward the tiny voice to find Zoe curled up in a sleeping bag in the corner, just like she used to when she had a nightmare. How long had it been since she’d done that? Zoe being there only made the whole scene more confusing. It was a relief to know she was safe, but relief didn’t lessen my confusion.

“What’s going on?” I asked groggily, pushing myself into a sitting position.

“We’ve been waiting to see if you’re going to pull through.” Scary biker dude answered with a shrug. I felt Zoe flinch.

“Pull through?” I asked absently, “What happened?” I really hoped I hadn’t wrecked my car.

“Don’t you remember anything?” Zoe looked at me with a worried expression.

I tired to think back, but all I could remember was my crazy dream. “Not unless I kissed Erin Madrugada last night, and then tried to face down a comic book super villain. “ I laughed, then immediately realized what a mistake that was, when my brain crashed against the shoals of my skull.

It was hard to imagine two people who looked more different than the two of them, yet the stares both Zoe and Mr. Tattooed muscle-and-fitness directed at me were identical.

“Your parents really never told him nothin’, huh?” I assumed the question was directed at Zoe, but those terrifying eyes never left me.

“No,” Zoe whispered. She was staring at me too, and frankly all of the attention was starting to make me a bit uncomfortable-not to mention the fact that I still had no idea what the hell was going on.

“Are one of you going to tell me what the hell is going on?” I tried to keep the annoyance out of my voice, but from the looks I got, I wasn’t entirely successful. “Please?”

I quickly tacked on, which seemed to mollify them slightly.

“Itch…you did kiss Erin Madrugada…” Zoe seemed to be struggling with something more to say, she looked like she was on the verge of tears and she wouldn’t meet my eyes. She picked at some lint on her pillow. “And….”

“And the electricity-throwing murderer didn’t come from a comic book, “Evil-dad-clone finished impatiently.

“Okay.” I smirked, playing along. “And who are you?”

“This is our Uncle Baird.” Zoe quickly interjected, still sounding nervous.

“It’s just Baird, squirt. No Uncle.” He directed a withering stare Zoe’s way.

I was definitely still dreaming, I realized with relief, that was the only reasonable way to explain such a bizarre conversation. I closed my eyes and tried to will myself to wake up. After a few seconds I hesitantly opened one eye and looked around-nothing had changed. “All right, let’s say I believe you. Why would the walking lightening rod be trying to kill us?” Somewhere amid all of this madness there must be a thread of logic that at least resembled reality.

“That’s a rather….involved story.” Mr. Gravely voice, Baird, answered evasively. “Suffice to say, you and that sneak have a history.” For a moment, rage distorted his features and blazed like a noon sun in his eyes. I had only thought he looked terrifying before, now malice rolled out from him in waves. “More so now that before.”

It took me a moment to work enough moisture into my mouth to respond. “ I don’t understand.”

Zoe looked like she might explain, but again Baird cut her off. “Not now, Squirt, give him a chance to wake up first. “He turned to me then, more composed, but I recognized the barely restrained anger lurking just beneath the surface. “Take a shower. Get dressed. We’ll wait downstairs.”

Zoe gave me another worried look on her way out the door. I wasn’t comfortable with her and Mirror universe dad being alone, but she didn’t seem scared of him, and I needed some time to collect my thoughts. I sat there for a few minutes trying to make sense of everything. It didn’t do any good. Nothing fit: People throwing balls of energy, the appearance of an Uncle I’d never heard of, a date with Erin Magrudaga. I concentrated on the memories of the last one, lingering on the details, if I was going to wake up and discover that all of this actually was a dream I didn’t want to forget a single moment of the good part.

Eventually, I was forced to admit I wasn’t waking up. Continuing to sit around staring off into space wasn’t helping me get the answers I needed either. I slowly stood, wincing several time from the pains lancing through my body as I moved, then headed towards the bathroom with a resigned sigh. I vaguely recalled the optimistic feeling I’d had the last time I made this walk. It already seemed like another life, though between Erin and the craziness afterword I wasn’t sure whether or not I should mourn the former existence.

The shower helped clear my head, leaving me more confused. When had my life become a bad graphic novel? More importantly-how had my life become a bad graphic novel?? I was fairly sure this wasn’t something that I could blame on Zoe-a situation both unexpected and new. Would anything in this new world be familiar? After the shower, I spend a long time combing my hair and getting dressed, much longer than I normally did. My procrastination was rooted in the hope that if I didn’t go downstairs and face the madness it would all simply go away. Seemed reasonable enough. It didn’t take me quite so long to come to the unfortunate realization that, eventually, I would need food. I was really hungry.

I made my march down the stairs to the gallows. Actually, finding a noose hanging from the ceiling and a burly maniac in a black hood couldn’t have surprised me more than what I actually found in the living room. Or where the living room used to be. The entire back wall, which once contained the window, I remembered static-cling jumping through, was blackened. There was a ragged and charred hole where the window had been and a foot-wide smoldering furrow was burned into the carpet running from the hole to the kitchen. Holy crap.

Both Baird and Zoe sat waiting for me at the kitchen table. Amazingly, the table was untouched by any sort of damage. For the first time since waking, I really looked at Zoe. She was a mess. Her hair was tangled into clumps, her eyes were red and puffy above tear stained cheeks. I had never seen her so un-composed. I glanced angrily at Baird, wondering if he was the cause, if he was….well, I was aware how very little I could do about it. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t try. I could feel the rage snarling inside of me….

“Easy kid. This isn’t my doing.” Baird locked eyes with me. He hadn’t spoke as though he was trying to be reassuring, he spoke as if he was on the verge of snapping my neck. Everything about this supposed uncle screamed dangerous. I suddenly had no doubts that this man had killed before. Maybe many, many times. I swallowed hard and turned back to Zoe. “Zee, are you alright?” she started to nod, but began to sob half-way through. I stood to go to her, she beat me to it, running around the table into my arms. I smoothed her knotted hair with my hands as she cried into my shoulder. “Okay”. I looked over her to Baird. “ I think I’m ready to hear what you have to say.” Zoe tried to say something, blubbered instead and cried harder. This was serious. I steeled myself for the worst.

“It’s your parents,” Baird explained without sympathy or compassion. “That smug little prick you took out last night got them.”

“What do you mean?” My voice echoed in my ears.

“Billy and your mother, they’re dead kid.” Baird was very still as he answered. Strangely. There was no immediate sense of grief-shock yes, and concern for Zoe, but no grief. That couldn’t be right. Did that mean it wasn’t true? No, Zoe wouldn’t be crying like this if it wasn’t true. Was I broken? What kind of monster doesn’t feel grief for his dead parents? Maybe it just hadn’t hit me yet, that’s possible, right?

“How?”

“I told you. The guy you fried last night got them.”

“I fried?” Fresh shock was evident in my voice, even to me.

“Hey, I’m as surprised as you are.” Baird shrugged his massive shoulders. “ I figure he must’ve underestimated you. Either that or her wasn’t as good as they say he was.”

“You knew him?” It seemed like such an unimportant question to ask at a time like this. Baird didn’t seem to notice.

“Knew of him,” he qualified with another shrug. Did anything ever faze this guy? “Squirt? Go upstairs and get cleaned up. We’ll wait.”

“Where are we going?” I asked for her.

“The funeral.”

Zoe merely nodded and headed out of the kitchen, still crying, with her face in her hands. I watched her go, wondering if she should be alone, almost following after her until I realized there wasn’t anything I could do. I’d probably end up making things worse-I never knew what to say.

“You should probably eat something,” Baird suggested. “You’ve been out of it for a while.”

“How long?”

“About a day.” He looked me over as he answered. “You okay?” His voice still held no hint of compassion, merely curiosity.

“I think so.” I wondered if I sounded as surprised as I felt. I couldn’t tell.

“Good.” He nodded once, then turned his head and stared off into space.

Nice guy. It didn’t seem like a good time to ask any of the hundreds of questions I had, which was something of a relief because I had no idea how to ask them. Or if I really wanted any of the answers. Accepting Baird’s story probably meant I was insane, but the whole world seemed to have gone insane, so at least I fit in for once.

I made myself a bowl of cereal and ate in silence.

After an eternity, Zoe reappeared wearing a long black dress and looking only slightly less disheveled-she somehow managed to make it look affected though, as if a tear-streaked face and red-rimmed eyes were the perfect accessories for her outfit. It seemed a strange moment for me to suddenly have an idea why so many people were in awe of my little sister. Had she always carried herself with that quiet dignity? Maybe I was too close to the painting to fully appreciate its beauty. Maybe I was just a self-centered jerk. Was that why I wasn’t crying too?

“Okay. I’m ready.” She sniffled, tears rolling silently down her cheeks.

It’s an odd feeling, to be inspired by your little sister. Here she was, obviously falling apart, and yet pulling herself together and holding up a brave face. I hadn’t squeezed out a single tear to the memory of my parents, hadn’t even felt a twinge of grief, and I still felt like I might vomit. I choked it back. If I was an unfeeling monster that it should be easy to be strong for Zoe. I was going to have to take car if her now. I certainly wasn’t going to leave it in the hands of this Uncle Baird character, the guy didn’t look like he was responsible enough to raise a goldfish. I was already starting to sound like my father.

Baird’s ancient truck sat in the driveway, depreciating property values for miles, I was sure. Covered more in rust than that faded mint green paint that still stubbornly clung to its side in several places, it was hard to imagine it actually running.

“Uh, I think we’ll follow you in my car.” I said, unable to take my eyes off of the ugly scrap. It was kind of like seeing a horrendous car wreck-as much as you wanted to look away, you just couldn’t.

“Get in the truck.” He growled. I really didn’t want to ride in that death trap, but I really didn’t want to argue with Baird either….and since Zoe was already heading for the truck…I hurried ahead to wrench the door open for her. I stopped as I noticed the gun rack hanging in cab’s back window. The rack itself wasn’t very surprising, the truck was probably full of country music and cans of chewing tobacco too, but what was hanging on the rack, well, that was another story. The solid black pump-action shotgun had a barrel easily twice the size of similar guns I had seen, yet somehow more menacing was the sword on the nook above it. With a blade nearly four feel long, encased in a black leather sheath, and with a handle that looked like it was made of some sort of bone, yellowed with age, the sword looked like something out of another age. Who the hell carried a sword on a gunrack? Okay, who the hell carried a sword period?

I stood there holding the door open, staring at the sword, while Zoe climbed past me into the truck. Baird noticed my preoccupation and smiled affectionately at the weapon. “admiring Merlin?” His voice sounded less gruff as he pulled the covered blade lightly. “I never go anywhere with out him.”

“Why did you name your sword Merlin?” I asked as I climbed in next to Zoe. It was hard to take my eyes off of the sword, it felt like sitting with my back to a viper.

“I didn’t. That’s his name.”

“What’d you name your gun?”

Baird turned to face me with a look with a look which clearly questioning my intelligence. “Why would I name a gun anything?” He shook his head as if the whole idea where completely ridiculous.

Zoe looked from me to Baird and back again with a slight smile while she rubbed at the bottom of her eyes with the edge of her sleeve.

“I know what you’re thinking, Squirt, and you’re wrong,” Baird grumbled with a quick turn of the key. The truck sprang to life with a deafening roar.

“Whatever you say, Uncle Baird.”

“Is it all right with you two if I pretend like I know what you’re talking about?” I asked with exaggerated seriousness.

Baird growled something I couldn’t understand over the noise of the engine. Zoe actually barked a laugh as she leaned her head on my shoulder. Apparently, there was a lot going on, aside from the obvious, that I didn’t understand. Nothing new there.

Ichabod Chapter 2

The Date

I found it extremely difficult not to bolt out the back door and spend the night in the woods; the thought of Zoe in the house alone with some strange guy was just enough to stop me. Just barely. My life was filled with irritating inconveniences centering around Zoe. Like the fact that, despite being two years older than her, we shared a birthday (I always suspected our parents lied about the date of Zoe’s birth to make celebrations easier) or that I really did love the little twerp, even though she was certainly the bane of my existence. Zoe, of course, was well aware of the latter and often played on it to my detriment-which was why she was the bane of my existence.

I sat on my unmade bed. In, my half-cleaned room, and wondered what fresh torture Zoe had in mind for me tonight. I could hear her in the bathroom singing happily while she blow dried her hair. I had no doubt that she would remain there preparing for her “date” until just before six. I didn’t think for one minute she would allow me the opportunity to answer the door when her guest arrived. If only I could figure out what else she was up to, maybe then I wouldn’t feel so jittery and nervous. Or maybe it would only be worse-Zoe’s schemes were like that sometimes.

When the door bell finally rang, after what seemed like both an agonizingly lone time and un unbelievably short time, I was fervently praying to whatever gods were listening that I was being overly paranoid and Zoe just wanted to watch a movie with some boy she like from school.

The Gods hate me.

As I came down the stairs into the living room it was no boy I saw standing there hugging my little sister much too tightly with his hand in the small of her back, it was Chad Cheney, captain of the swim team. The guy was a freaking sculpture: a blonde-haired, blue eyed, tanned sculpture. The guy was freaking rich, his parents house was a square foot shy of officially being a mansion. Every girl in school, my school, high school, swooned over this freaking guy. But besides all of that, the guy was a freaking senior. It’s one thing to know that seniors routinely ask out your little sister, it’s quite another thing to find out one of them is actually dating your little sister. The guy was a freaking dead man. My blood-pressure spurted up like an out-of-control oil well and my fists clenched of the own volition.

At least he had the decency to look ashamed when he saw me standing there. “Uh, Ichabod, what’s up bro?” He asked, his eyes firmly on the floor.

“What’s up bro?” I parroted in disbelief with all the venom I felt building up inside of me. Was he really that stupid? I had never taken him for the stereo typical dumb jock. Did he not realize he was older than ME and he was dating my LITTLE sister? I had never been in a fight before, and something told me Chad was not my smartest choice for an inaugural bout, but….I could hit him with a shovel. Hadn’t I decided earlier there must be a shovel around the house somewhere? I quickly scanned the living room, as if I might actually find one propped up in a corner, and only got more angry when I didn’t see one. I felt…..something….inside me stretch taut, like it was about to snap…..

With three quick strides Zoe was there in front of me, both hands flat on my chest. “Itch? Take a breath.” She was whispering up at me. “We’re not going out anywhere, we’re going to be right here where you can see us the whole time.” She sounded as though that was perfectly reasonable. “Please calm down.”

“Zee, do you realize he’s a senior?” I growled. Without waiting for an answer, I looked up to glare at Chad over Zoe’s head. “Do you realize she’s only fourteen? “I could feel myself losing control, that…thing…inside me felt like it was starting to rear at the edges. It felt so similar to my unexplainable rages, yet different in some fundamental way.

Chad grimaced, still staring at his feet. And answered in a ragged whisper, just barely loud enough to me to hear. “I know. But there’s something….I can’t explain it.”

I looked back down at Zoe in time to see her brow furrow and her bottom lip tremble before she composed herself. Every muscle in my body tightened as I prepared to launch myself at him. Zoe’s hands balled up into two tiny fists, gripping my t-shirt, and her wide eyes narrowed.

“Itch.”

My only response was a thunderous bass ripping out of my throat.

“Itch, you’re scaring me.”

And Just like that, my anger dissipated. I never wanted Zoe to be afraid of me, not really. I immediately felt horrible, wiping away any vestige of the rising rage. The rapidity of the emotional shift left me slightly dizzy.

I hugged her fiercely for a moment, then pushed her out to arm’s length. “I’m sorry.” I apologized. Looking into her eyes so she would know how much I meant it.

She released a tiny sigh and stepped in to pat me lightly on the chest, but when she spoke her eyes and voice blazed-and not with fear. “If you EVER…EVER…” She choked, seeming unsure of how to continue, her diminutive body shaking with the intensity of her fury. Much as I hated to admit it, I may have been intimidated. The tiniest twinge of intimidation. Almost nonexistent.

“Come on, Ichabod, come show me where the popcorn is.” Erin was there, suddenly, leading me by the hand towards the kitchen. Where had she come from? And how had I not noticed her? Everything was happening too fast. I needed a quiet space to process all of the emotions. There was far too much emoting.

“Holy crap.” I breathed as I got a good look at her.

Her dark brown hair was pulled up in a loose bun, with two strands left free to fall on either side of her face. She was wearing tiny diamond studs in ears that seemed just a little too long, they gave her a slightly elfin look I had always found captivating. Her dress, the same blue as my car, tied up behind her neck and clung to her in ways that made my mouth dry. Before I could stop myself, I had reached out, cupping my hand around her cheek, and turned her face up. The blush had brought out the color of her eyes. As if she needed it. Those eyes….totally not helping with the emoting.

“I’m sorry.” I apologized quickly and pulled my hand away with a jolt. Great. I was on a real roll tonight-threatening Chad, scaring Zoe, embarrassing Erin, maybe for a finale I’d save everyone a lot of grief and set myself on fire.

“Are you okay?’ she asked, her eyes ticking back and forth between mine.

There was that question again. Again I felt he weird urge to tell her the truth. I took a deep breath and sighed. “I really don’t know anymore.”

“You look like you need some popcorn.” She said, the wisp of a smile lighting her face, as she pulled me to the microwave.

“Yeah, that oughta do it.” I smiled back and reached up in to the cupboard above the counter, grabbing a box filled with folded paper bags. I could feel Erin’s eyes on me as I popped a bag into the microwave. I set the timer. I leaned forward on the counter. I looked into the back corner of the cupboard’s underside checking for spider webs. Finally I worked up the courage to turn around, sure enough, she was watching me and biting her lower lip. I wondered if she realized just how irresistible she looked when she did that.

“What?” I asked self-consciously.

“You’re kind of intense,” she answered absently. Continuing to stare at me.

“As usual, I didn’t know what to say. So, I admitted, “I’m not sure what you mean.”

At first, I didn’t think she was going to elaborate. She just stood silently staring at me and chewing on her lip, but then her eyes focused tightly on mine. “You saved me from that dog today and I didn’t tell anyone because it didn’t seem real. You moved so fast, and the look in your….I’ve never seen anyone who looks like you. You always seem to be in the throes of some deep emotion, it shows in your eyes more than anything else. It’s why Zoe worries about you so much.” Her voice was quiet as she explained. “It makes you mysterious…and a little scary.”

I was shocked. Sure I scared myself. I was terrified of whatever was happening with these fits of rage. But the idea that anybody else would be scared of me….then again, hadn’t I scared Zoe tonight? It made me uncomfortable that other people could see my inner turmoil.

“Are you trying to tell me you think I’m interesting?” I joked, my lame attempt to ignore the direction my thoughts were taking, maybe lighten the mood-something I didn’t usually care about.

“Ichabod.” She laughed, “you are the only guy in town a girl would never have to lose sleep over, worrying you were going to dump her for Zoe. That alone makes you interesting.” She was laughing, so I couldn’t be sure, but I thought she might really mean what she was saying.

“I never thought of it like that.” I chuckled dispelling some of my unease. “I guess I’m the town’s most eligible bachelor. “

“So you can laugh.”

Occasionally,” I allowed. When had this gotten easy?

The microwave’s beeping sounded like a klaxon as it shattered the magic of our moment and making us both jump. An awkwardness insinuated itself into the proceeding silence. I remembered suddenly that this wasn’t a date, it wasn’t even a chance meeting; Zoe had planned the entire charade.

“So is that how Zoe convinced you to come tonight? By selling you on my virtue as the only guy around who couldn’t possible want her?” I hoped I didn’t sound as bitter as I felt.

“She tried to.” Erin almost smiled, then looked down at her feet. “But it was the little things that made me decide to come, the way you always wait to make sure Zoe gets inside safely whenever you drop her off anywhere, how careful you are around anyone smaller than you, that you saved my life today, stuff like that.”

Wow. I….wow. “Erin, look I know that despite anything else, you’re here because Zoe asked you to come…” I trailed off, trying to find the right words. How was I supposed to tell her I was happy she was there anyway? Preferably without sounding like an idiot.

“Yeah, she’s pretty convinced that we’re perfect for each other.” She sighed without any hint of how she felt.

“THERE IS A VERY TINY PERSON STARVING IN HERE!” Zoe yelled from the living room.

Erin and I shared a brief smile while I grabbed the popcorn and poured it into a big bowl. I walked into the living room to find Chad and Zoe on the couch together, his arm around her as she leaned into him with her hand on his chest. Chad. My body stiffened with a pulse of anger – I had somehow managed to forget about Chad. Then Erin was beside me, wrapping her arm through mine, and I melted, allowing her to lead me to the couch. Damn, I was really easy.

Well, easy I might be, but there was still enough ire in me to look over Erin and ask Zoe with mock sweetness, “Does Dad know about this?”

The idea obviously horrified her, “NO!” she exclaimed, then smiled and mimicked my sweet tone, “But Mom is fine with it. She likes Chad.”

Damn. If Mom really knew about Chad and approved, I was overruled. It also meant that if I told Dad I would have to deal with the wrath of Mom – a shudder – inducing thought.

Chad looked over at me cautiously. “Ichabod, dude, I think it’s totally cool the way you look out for you little sis, but I swear, me and Zoe don’t do anything but hang out.” I’m sure he meant for the stupid smile on his face to be sincere, it just made me want to hit him. Zoe punched him in the stomach and, while I’m certain he barely felt it, he flinched and took the hint to shut up.

The movie started and, against my better judgement, I reached back behind me and flipped the light switch off. Everyone settled in to watch. Everyone except me. I was busy making sure Chad was keeping his hands where I could see them but, as hard as I fought it, I started to become more and more aware of Erin sitting next to me. Chaperoning was hard. I tried to divide my attention equally between watching Chad and staring at Erin. I knew from the start I was fighting a losing battle. A half hour into the movie Erin took me by the hand and guided my arm over her shoulder as she snuggled into me. After that I completely forgot about Mr. Swimteam. All of my senses focused tightly on Erin. A light cinnamon scent was coming off of her, making it almost impossible for me to think straight. How did she always manage to smell like food? I couldn’t believe how soft her skin was, feeling her warmth against me had my pulse pounding. I watched her watching the movie and wondered why I had never before noticed how the corners of her eyes would crinkle slightly when she smiled or how she would scrunch up her nose when she saw something she didn’t like.

Get ahold of yourself, Ichabod, I mentally chastised myself – you’re starting to cross over into boy-band territory here. I had nearly gotten a handle on myself when Erin reached her arm around me, pulling her legs up underneath her, and readjusted her head on my chest. At that point all thought fled and dove into a foxhole as my mind became a battleground between manners and instincts. I never imagined that simply sitting could be so exhausting. I was even starting to sweat. With her head on my chest I was sure Erin could hear my heart speeding and my breathing became panting. If I had been able to frame a single coherent thought I probably would have been terribly embarrassed. As it was, I could barely remember my own name – beyond Erin, the world ceased to exist.

I blinked a few times in surprise and confusion when the lights came back on. I looked up in time to see Zoe smile at me over her shoulder as she carried the empty popcorn bowl into the kitchen. I felt the couch shift, Chad stretched. Everything seemed intrusive, too close with the lights back on. I tried to bring my focus back to Erin and while I didn’t find that the least bit difficult, it felt less complete than before. The only movement she made was her steady breathing. I thought she might have been asleep and desperately wished I could see her face.

I was just starting to relish the thought of spending the night right there, when she rolled her whole body over so she could look up at me. “Did you like the movie?” she asked.

Our faces were inches apart, making it very difficult to pay attention. Had she just asked me something? Something about a movie? “What movie?”

She leaned back to look at me more fully, her eyes sweeping over my face, and then a small smile set those eyes to twinkling. “I’ve seen you staring at me in class.” Her eyes held mine, giving me the strangest feeling – like I was having an out of body experience.

“Do you know, I have always thought that if the oceans were perfectly still, they would be the same color as your eyes.” Wait, What? I’m pretty sure that hadn’t been what I meant to say at all.

“Dude, that was the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.” Chad. But I found it surprisingly easy to ignore him with Erin so close.

She was looking at me like she had never seen me before, those eyes combing my face, their glorious light green color sparkling with some mysterious emotion. She was leaning towards me, her lips slightly parted and her eyes closing. I felt one quick stab of panic, then instinct won the war, crushing every thought but my need for her. I pulled her to me, the taste of her lips lifting me away on hurricane force winds – I had only believed I was floating before, now I was soaring! At first the kiss was shy, became tentative, but it seemed to ignite something deep within both of us and, as our breathing began to come in rapid gasps, the kiss became more urgent.

Someone cleared their throat loudly. Several times.

When I could actually bother to notice anything going on around me, which only became possible because Erin had pulled away. I realized we were completely wrapped around each other. A deep blush burned my skin, possibly matching the dark crimson which blazed her complexion to dusk. It was only her obvious embarrassment stopping me from kissing her again. I had a stray thought that if I immersed myself that deeply in her again I might never find my way back to the surface of her fathomless seas. It only made me want to kiss her more. Erin slowly disentangled herself and stood, still blushing, to straighten her dress. A great sense of loss swept over me once we were no longer touching, it felt close to despair. I tried to tell myself I was being ridiculous, but myself didn’t believe me. The truth was, I had no idea what was happening to me, I had no experience with this sort of thing. Maybe I really was being ridiculous. How would I know? The only thing I was absolutely certain about was that, right there in that moment, I didn’t want to feel any other way.

Mumbling something which, for some reason, sounded like an apology, Erin spun and qucily followed Zoe into the kitchen. I sat there, staring after her, while I tried to make sense of the thoughts tumbling through my head.

“Uh…dude?” Chad. It was a measure of my euphoria that I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of anger at the sound of his voice.

“What?” I asked without looking at him.

“Are we cool?”

Maybe I had always given her too much credit in the intelligence department. Maybe he was just the stereotypical dumb jock.

“Not a chance,” I answered simply, still not looking at him. However, I didn’t actually have to see him to sense he had more he wanted to say. Probably some lame justification. I wasn’t willing to trust my self-control that far, and I really didn’t want to hear it anyway. I got up and followed the girls into the kitchen before he could work himself up to whatever it was.

Zoe and Erin were standing at the sink with their heads together, whispering, when I walked in. Their quiet conversation ceased as soon as they noticed me and both gave me hard stare only marginally softened by their twin blushes. I immediately turned on my heel and walked back to the couch. Inexperienced I might be, but I wasn’t such a fool that I wanted to deal with whatever that had been about. At least Chad didn’t try to talk to me again.

The girls remained in the kitchen for the better part of an hour, only the occasional giggle giving evidence of their continued presence. For some inexplicable reason I started to get nervous. The few glances I made towards Chad showed me he wasn’t feeling any better than I was. I didn’t know if I should find that reassuring or not.

When the girls finally did emerge, they came together – practically walking in step – and wearing the same small smile. I wondered if Erin was exaggerating her walk on purpose or if it was just my imagination; it didn’t matter, either way, I was enjoying the spectacle. Erin’s slow, seductive steps brought her right in front of me, where she settled down into my lap and hung an arm around my neck. It was impossible to figure out which would kill me first – my brain exploding or my heart beating out of my chest.

“Will you walk me out to my car?” she asked looking down at her finger, idly running up and down my chest.

My mouth was so dry I wasn’t sure if I would be able to answer, so I simply nodded. Her responding smile was dazzling, making her leaving an almost physically painful event – so much so, that when she tried to stand I held her fast and picked her up, cradled in my arms, to carry her to the front door. I was feeling pretty proud of myself and I swung open the door, no easy feat with Erin in my arms, and carried her outside. I actually managed to make it without stumbling, falling or dropping her. She giggled softly into my shoulder and I felt myself smile in response, it felt oddly unfamiliar on my face – almost as if I had never really smiled before. My first real smile. I chuckled at the realization.

“What’s funny?” she asked.

“I’m happy.”

“And that’s funny.” She didn’t make it a question, though she seemed to be struggling to understand.

“Not funny exactly, just surprising. Happiness I rare for me. I guess I haven’t had enough practice with it to recognize it right away.” I chuckled again at the absurdity of the statement and the almost casual honesty she seemed to be engendering in me.

“So, I make you happy.” She seemed delighted with this news, her smile stretching across her face and her eyes sparkling again just like they had right before we kissed. The memory of that kiss got my pulse racing. I started walking again before she could feel the acceleration.

She sighed when I set her down in front of her mother’s mini-van. I might have signed too, I felt like sighing, I just hoped that if I did she hadn’t noticed. WE stood there, staring into each other’s eyes, while somewhere behind me Chad and Zoe murmured their good-byes. Very slowly, Erin reached up on her toes and kissed me gently – I wanted desperately to give in to the inferno inside me, to consume it and be consumed by it. Instead, I exerted great effort and managed to restrain myself, allowing her to pull away after the briefest of moments. Her eyes never left mine. There seemed to be a sudden wariness in those eyes that I couldn’t explain. Did I look angry? I tried to smile. It fell off.

“Are you okay?” She asked me for the second time that night.

“I’m fine,” I mumbled, trying not to blush for the millionth time that night. She looked away, frowning. I instantly felt like an idiot of course. I was going to have to figure out how to stop hurting her feelings if this was going to work. I really wanted this to work. “It’s just that, well…” I struggled to find the words which would make me feel better. “I’m just nervous. I’m afraid of doing something that’ll scare you off.” There. The truth had worked well so far, it seemed to be our thing, so I was only mildly surprised when she smiled. It still knocked me breathless though.

“You’re a surprisingly sweet guy.” This time I couldn’t stop the heat flooding up my neck and bathing my face. She laughed as she touched my burning cheek with her fingertips. I thought she might say something more, but apparently, she changed her mind because after leaning in for another quick kiss she climbed into the mini-van. I was still collecting my scattered thoughts as she pulled away.

I stood in the front yard looking after her until her taillights disappeared into the night.

When I stumbled inside, feeling like I had just awoken from a dream, I found Zoe standing in the middle of the living room with a smug expression on her face. “Have fun?”

It seemed absurd trying to deny what must have been painfully obvious, so I didn’t bother. “Yes,” I answered.

“And…”

“And you are beyond any shadow of a doubt the best, smartest, most beautiful little sister in the history of the world.” I even managed to it without a trace of sarcasm. She deserved it.

“Thank you.” She bowed her head graciously, the picture of royalty. “Now,” a familiar mischievous spread across one side of her face as she looked up, “maybe we can talk about your wardrobe.”

“Don’t press your luck, twerp.” I tried to sound irritated, but couldn’t manage it so I settle for stomping off into the kitchen. Zoe followed me, unperturbed.

“Aw, come on Itch,” she whined, “I’ll be fun.”

“Absolutely not.” I hid my smile by busying myself putting coffee on. I was reasonably sure she was only teasing me, but I couldn’t be certain. It was better to play it safe and give her no reasons to claim a victory. Especially on this subject.

“I bet Erin would like it.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at that one. “Forget it. Besides, things seemed to go just fine tonight without designer clothing.”

“That’s true,” she allowed, though she sounded astonished. It probably caused her to question her world view. Finally, she shook her head, as if trying to dislodge an unsettling thought. “Doesn’t matter,” she muttered with mild annoyance, only causing me to laugh harder.

“Just be satisfied that, for once, I’m grateful for your meddling,” I suggested when my prolonged laughing caused her to scowl. “Besides, all of the frowning is going to give you wrinkles.” Her face smoothed instantly, almost launching me back into hysterics – I mastered composure this time. I was having a good night and really didn’t want to ruin it with a fit of itching.

“You and Erin really do make a cute couple.” She smiled and I knew that I was forgiven, though I doubted she would forget about her fashion make-over. At least I had been granted a temporary reprieve. “You should call her tonight.”

“Now? Zoe, she’s probably not even home yet.”

“Itch, I realize mom and dad have kept this house locked in the stone age, but the rest of the world has advanced beyond worshipping fire and the land-line. Erin has a cell phone.”

Right. Duh. I could totally call her tonight. In fact, I could totally call her right then. My heart did a little leaping fist pump. Maybe a ‘yipee’. A dignified ‘yipee’. “You don’t think it’s too soon?”

“Do you care?”

WE were standing across the kitchen table from each other, smiling, when I heard glass shatter in the living room. Zoe’s head snapped in the direction of the noise and the back to me. “ITCH RUN!” She screamed and threw herself to the floor as a spinning ball of crackling blue light flew through the space her had had just occupied. The ball of light crashed into the back door, smashing the window and setting the frilly curtains on fire.

I vaulted over the table and set myself between Zoe and whatever had attacked her. A small corner of my mind that was somehow retaining its grasp on rational thought assured me I was dreaming. That made sense to me. Where else, but in a dream, do balls of lightning fly around. For that matter, where else but in a dream do I have a date with Erin Madrugada? Dreams, no matter how vivid, I can handle. Reality’s the problem. So, the realization the whole night was a dream was a relief and a disappointment, but it certainly wasn’t a surprise.

Standing amid the broken glass, knees slightly bent, hands arced into claws, was a stocky man with close cropped blonde hair and icy blue eyes glowing with demonic energy. His eyes were glowing. The wind, blowing in from the broken window behind him, whipped the flimsy lace curtains around his arms and legs. His eyes narrowed as he stared at me and I felt the world give an odd jump in his direction. Blue sparks leapt from his fingertips to form balls of energy in his palms. It suddenly hit me that only a second had passed since Zoe’s scream, maybe only a fraction of that, and all the hair on my body stood at attention. I considered the possibility that is wasn’t a dream.

The smile splitting captain static’s blocky face was cold and unfriendly. “I never imagined I would get to kill two Cayce Pups.” His voice sounded husky and barely restrained excitement. “Your parents have been busy.”

It took me a beat to realize he was casually talking about murdering Zoe – when I did…that thing… inside of my body trembled with the strength of the rage filling it. It was like while heat pumping through my veins, spilling out through my pores. I was only vaguely aware of the light bulbs flickering, then popping, and showering me with their dying luminescence. The stranger’s smile slipped and slowly slid into a contortion of panicked horror. My trembling intensified, my inner fires consuming thought and fear and being, burning everything, me to ash. My vision leapt downward and forward as if the entire world were shaking apart.

The stranger threw his hands forward at the same moment the fires overwhelmed me and I screamed with anger and anguish beyond anything I had ever felt before. A blinding blue-white light invaded my vision, dominating all it touched, conquering eternity…vaporizing my blood…scorching my skin from bone…

When it at last faded away I could see nothing but black. I felt like I was falling, but slowly. From somewhere far away I could hear the cacophony of a thousand explosions…then Zoe’s voice, Itch?” why did she sound like she was crying? Was she okay? I tried to reach out, but my body couldn’t respond.

My last thought, before the blackness pulled me beneath it, was to wonder if I was dying. I was strangely calm about it, almost as if I had been expecting the other shoe to drop all night.

Ichabod conclusion Chapter one

When I pulled into the mall parking lot a dozen girls, ranging in age from thirteen-year-old classmates of Zoe to eighteen-year-old seniors, rushed up and broke over my car like a wave. All of them talking at once. Queen Zoe, benevolent monarch of the masses has arrived. I chuckled to myself, shaking my head, as I watched Zoe lead her entourage through the big glass doors into the mall. Once I was sure she had made it safely inside, I walked across the parking lot to the Bag N’Burger. I had a sudden, overwhelming, craving for a milkshake.

Inside, I was relieved to see that it was still early enough that the place was nearly empty-no lines and no screaming kids. Things were looking up. I vaguely recognized the guy manning the counter with his greasy black hair and pimple ravaged face, I probably had a class with him or something.

“Welcome to Bag N’Burger. What kin’ I do ya fer?” the kid recited shame faced. I treid to rein in my laugh, but couldn’t. One of the many reasons I loved the Bag N’Burger, and the main reason I never used the drive thru, as that every day the owner came up with a new slogan, and over time they had gotten more and more ridiculous. I almost felt bad for the kids working there, almost.

“Just a strawberry shake, extra thick, with a mighty straw.” The mighty straw was as wide as three normal straws and, aside from being the only possible way to drink an extra thick shake, was another of the reasons I love the Bag N’Burger.

“would you like diced fruit with that?” And that right there-the main reason I loved the Bag N’Burger and always got my shakes there. Any fruit you could imagine diced into delectable cubes so diminutive they melted on your toungue.

“Yeah,” I thought it over. “How about pear.”

As he rang up my order I couldn’t ignore the look of recognition washing over his face, like he was trying to remember who I was.

Here is comes, I thought and began the mental countdown at five.

“Hey, “ he said finally, waggling a finger at me. “Aren’t you Zoe Case’s brother? “

Damn. I had only gotten to two.

At the sound of Zoe’s name, multiple heads in hair nets and paper caps popped up from behind grills and around doors, all of them desperately scanning the area for my little sister.

“Yeah.” I answered, wondering where my milkshake was.

“Is she with you? “ He started looking around the practically vacant restaurant.

“um, no.” I was finding it especially hard not to ridicule this guy.

“Tell her I said hi, would you? “ he asked, passing my my milkshake at long last.

“No problem.” I grabbed the cup and bolted before the rest of the grease brigade could begin giving their messages.

“Tell her Kenny…” He yelled to my back as I passed through the exit.

I was already well on my way to forgetting all about Commander Zits by the time I got back to my car.

I swung the driver’s door open and sat with my feet on the asphalt to reduce the risk of spilling anything in my car. One day I was going to meet the founder of the Bag N’Burger and shake his hand. I noticed a few people gawking at me as they walked by. They must be wondering if I’m Zoe Cases’ brother, I thought with a smirk. It was more likely they were staring at my car-and really, who could blame them?

My father had earned my eternal gratitude when he unveiled the car on the morning of my sixteenth birthday. He told me he had gotten it cheap, but never said how cheap. I wondered how much money he made being a meteorologist. He wasn’t even the guy who reported the weather on the local news. Now that I thought about it, I had no idea what it was exactly my father did for a living. What does a meteorologist, who doesn’t report the weather do? I shrugged, figuring it probably wasn’t important, just one of the many things my parents never discussed. I had long since learned that asking my parents personal questions was a quick way to end up doing chores-their preferred method of changing the subject. Maybe they were fugitives. I shook my head and laughed aloud at the idea of my parents as dangerous criminals.

By the time I had wrung all of the entertainment value from my parents-on-the-lamb speculation I had also finished my milkshake. I threw the empty wax paper cup towards a bright orange metal drum siting a few feet away.

“And….he scores,” I punctuated triumphantly as the cup landed inside the drum with a satisfying clunk. I leaned back in my seat, closed my eyes, ad allowed my mind to wander. Maybe, if I could find a way to dampen her enthusiasm, it wouldn’t be so bad letting Zoe set me up with one of her friends, I mused…then stopped in horror. What was wrong with me? Maybe that milkshake had gone bad. Zoe meddled in my life more than I could stand already and she did it without even trying, if idea of actually giving her permission…..terrifying. I shuddered at the sudden mental image of me as one of Zoe’s happy little drones. I guess I can wait until College to date, I thought morosely, after all, there had to be someplace left on planet Earth where they had not yet heard of…..

MY thoughts were interrupted by a shadow that fell across me, blocking the sun. I felt the corners of my mouth turn down in irritation as I wondered which love sick moron had decided it was a good idea to ask the big brother if Zoe had a date for the dance yet-or whatever social function I was oblivious to was coming soon to a nightmare near me. I didn’t even bother opening my eyes because there was no other reason that anyone would approach me. I figured if I ignored him he would go away, eventually, which is why I was completely surprised to hear a familiar, and distinctly feminine voice.

“Nice car.”

I started, nearly falling out of the open car door, and turning to stare up into the clear light green eyes that had haunted my dreams almost every night. My parents had taken Zoe and me to Florida last summer and the gulf waters had been that exact shade of green. Erin Madrugada was, quite literally, the girl of my dreams. Or, at least, the eyes of my dreams. She was standing with one long smooth leg slightly bent behind the other, slowly digging the toe of her white sneaker into the blacktop. Her hands were folded at her waist, and she was biting her full bottom lip. A small part of my brain wondered why she looks so nervous, but the rest was too busy drinking in the sight of her to pay much attention. Her straight hair reached to just below her shoulders and was such a dark brown that it sometimes looked black. Her oval face, balanced right on the precipice between girl-next-door cute and Hollywood starlet beautiful, never failed to yank my breath away. My pulse picked up a notch as I noticed how her lightly caramel skin contrasted with her bright yellow mini shirt and v-neck t-shirt.

“um, thanks,” I responded a full second too late. I felt like I should be apologizing for staring, unfortunately I didn’t know how to do that without making a bigger idiot out of myself. Maybe she wouldn’t notice.

“I’m Erin.” She extended her hand towards me with a shy smile. Not only did she not know who I was, she didn’t even know I knew who she was.

I took her hand absently. I couldn’t fathom why she was speaking to me. We had been in science class together for two years running, and in that time, had never once said a word to each other. I realized I had started staring again and forced myself to stop.

“Ichabod.” I flushed a little at my stupid name. “So what kind of car is this?” she asked, leaning forward a little to look inside.

I barely heard her over the pounding of my heart. She smelled amazing-like butterscotch and vanilla. I think she might have said something more, but I couldn’t be sure, it was impossible to focus with her standing so close. I found myself ogling the thin slice of her flat belly that I could see beneath her shirt’s hem. I pulled my eyes back up to her face. It didn’t help. I was getting a little dizzy,

Everything started to look really far away. Then, just when I started to feel like my brain was about to shut off, it all suddenly made sense. Zoe.

The blood flowed back into my head with a flush of anger, allowing me to think a little more clearly. A very little. The twerp had set this up.

“Look Erin, “ I said, trying to keep my voice calm. “you don’t have to do this. I know Zoe put you up to it.” A look of profound relief streamed over her face and crashed among the jagged rocks of my broken heart. I had to admit, to myself at least, that look hurt-which of course only made me more angry.

“oh, thank God.” She laughed as she straightened and smoothed her shirt. “the look on your face…I thought you were going to bite my head off.”

I had looked angry? Well that’s probably because I was angry. Zoe wa going to pay for this. The back yard was plenty big enough and I was positive my father had a shovel somewhere around the house. I had Zoe buried up to her neck before I realized that Erin as still standing there. I glanced up to find her biting her lower lip again and scrutinizing me.

“Are you…” she stopped, going rigid as a resonant growl rolled menacingly from somewhere behind her. Oh so slowly, she turned and put her back against the car.

Standing there, with its head lowered and its teeth bared, was a smallish yellow dog. The kind of dog you normally was happily wagging its tail while a toddler yanks on its ears. This dog’s tail was not wagging. It interrupted its growling long enough to bark and hop forward, causing Erin to cringe. I scrambled out of the car, clumsily banging my knew on the open door. Time seemed to slow. I watched each muscle bunch as the dog rocked back onto its hind legs and then release as it launched itself forward. Between one heartbeat and the next panic turned to anger, and anger turned to action. Some sense within me I had never before been aware of stretched taut. My fist smashed against the side of the dog’s jaw, sending it sailing away to crash into a heap on the ground. I stood between it and Erin, wondering how I had gotten there. I watched the dog pick itself up on shaky legs. I clenched my fist anticipating another attack. It whined once and looked at me, with what I would have sworn was betrayal, as it limped away. “what the hell was that? “I asked no one in particular. It had all happened so fast that, except for the adrenaline flooding through my, it might have all happened in my head. Man, that was all I needed on top of everything-to be hallucinating too. “Are you okay?” Erin asked, erminding me she was there.

“Yeah.” I rasped. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, Thank you. Dogs have never liked me, but I’ve never had one try to attack me before.”

“My mother has that same problem.” Why would I mention my mother at a time like this? I felt myself blush and climbed back into the car to hide my face.

“Are you sure that you’re alright?”

I had the strongest urge to tell her the truth. To tell her no. To spill my guts about my frustration with Zoe and my fear about the unpredictable fits of rage. Maybe not the glowing eyes thing, but everything else. That milkshake rally must have gone bad. “Yeah,” I lied instead. “I’m okay. You don’t have to hang out. Zoe will understand, she knows what a jerk I am.”

She hesitated for a moment, flushing pink, before she whirled around and walked off in the opposite direction of the dog, towards the all with her hands folded behind her back to keep her skirt from bouncing up.

Why had she looked embarrassed? Must have been my imagination. The better question was, how had Zoe known about Erin Madrugada? It couldn’t be coincidence. Zoe was friends with every girl in town, what were the odds she had just randomly picked Erin?

Maybe if I beg and get a job to pay half of the tuition, I thought dejectedly. After all, how bad could military school actually be? I bet I could even find one where no one had ever heard of Zoe Case.

I could feel my anger building, despite my attempts to calm down and with it came the familiar urge to lash out violently. I gripped the steering wheel and concentrated on my breathing. My ears rang with the echo of blood charging through me. Sharp pains lanced through my temples. My muscles jumped, twitched, war danced. It took me a long time to regain control of myself. What if the next time it happened I couldn’t fight it down? What if that next time had happened moments before, with Erin standing there? The question rose unbidden in my mind and I shied away from even considering what the answer might be. I had turned the key in the ignition and roared out of the parking lot before I fully realized what I was doing. I was making a run for it. How do you run from yourself? I was sick of asking questions I didn’t have answers to, so I slipped a cd into the stereo and cranked the volume all way up in an attempt to drown the noise in my head. The sounds of the 80’s speed metal band Tread Marks blasted through the speakers as the car blasted through the tranquility of the highway. I didn’t bother to glance at the speedometer or to notice where I was going. What did it matter? Did anything really matter?

Sadly, the answer was yes. There were things that did matter. Things that mattered more than my anger or confusion-things that mattered more than me.

I sighed and let off the gas. Zoe needed a ride home, and besides, totaling my car wouldn’t solve any of my problems. Knowing my luck, I’d probably survive the wreck. Then I would still have to deal with all the same crap….without my car.

I pulled back into the mall parking lot filled with a hopeless desperation, my world was drowning in it. I couldn’t explain the sensation and didn’t try in any case. Life sucks, every body knows it, you just have to deal with it. So, I’d deal with it. Somehow. I felt drained, exhausted, so I leaned back and closed my eyes. I tried to clear my mind, concentrate on my breathing, I wanted nothing so much as I have all feeling erode away into the ocean of blackness behind my closed eyes……

 

 

I was pretty sure I was dreaming, either that or I had completely lost my mind. I was standing in a desolate wasteland that stretched out in all directions. Unrolled into forever. The sky above me was pitch, with only the occasional flash of lightning to illuminate the roiling mass of storm clouds that swirled there. The entire landscape glowed with a soft gray light I could feel on my skin; it felt slick, like oil, and cold. Something about this place made me feel angry and powerful. Like a vengeful God.

I took a step forward expecting to hear the crunch of dirt beneath my boot. But there was no sound-no crunch of dirt, no whoosh of wind, and no crack of thunder. I knew all of these things were present, I could feel them, but their voices were absent. Mine was not. I inhaled deeply, the sulphurous air burning my lungs, and screamed-a primal roar containing all of my fears, longings, and frustrations. Not all of my anger though, there seemed too much of it to ever give away, to ever spend itself out. I wanted to cry. I wanted to laugh.

In the distance I could see someone striding towards me. Even from so far away I could tell their steps were filled with confidence and purpose. A growl like the sundering of continents rolled out from my chest and I charged towards the figure, the energy, just as it began to charge towards me. I ran with the relentless determination of time, each stride propelling me forward over ground as lifeless as I felt inside. There was something familiar about my energy, something about his balled fists, his frenzied charge, the flashing light in his eyes. Too late I recognized the figure, too late I recognized myself.

Too late to stop.

I crashed into my enemy, into myself, with an impact that caused the world around us to shudder. An impact shattering us both like glass…….

I awoke with a gasp, covered in sweat, and heart pounding out a Tread Marks drum solo. The nightmare hadn’t just been weird and terrifying-it had also been incredibly vivid.

It was about an hour later when Queen Zoe led her court, now numbering closer to two dozen, out of the mall. I was still so disturbed by my nightmare it took me a minute to remember that I was supposed to be mad at her, Zoe’s friends split off from her, waving good bye, before she got to the car. An early separation could only mean one thing-they knew I was angry. Great. If military school was too expensive Maybe I could convince my parents to let me just join the military. I could lie about my age and, you never know, maybe I would get lucky ad somebody would shoot me. Hopefully I could find a way to pull of this off before the entire town found out abut my little sister forcing Erin to talk to me. Knowing Zoe and her friends, it was probably already too late.

When Zoe opened the door and slid into the passenger seat her look of doe-eyed innocence was so adorably comical I started laughing and gave up trying to reignite my anger at her. Amazing, I marveled, even though I know better, the brat still manages to work her magic on even me sometimes.

“What?” She asked.

“You’re a very cute little brat.”

“Thank you.”

Since I had decided to forgive her, I figured it was best if I didn’t bring up the Erin incident, it would only make her angry again, so I drove in silence while Zoe played with the radio tuner. When she finally settled on a station she turned the volume almost all of the way down.

“Spit it out, Zee”, I prompted when she seemed to hesitate.

“Are mom and dad coming home tonight?”

That had not been what I was expecting at all, and it caught me off guard. “Uh, no. Tomorrow night.” How could she not know that?

“Oh.” She seemed to withdraw into herself, deep in thought, lightly tapping her chin with a finger. “Where did they go again?”

“Some bed and breakfast upstate, I forget where.” I answered, starting to get suspicious. Zoe always knew more about our parents’ travel plans that I did. She was obviously up to something. My tone must have tipped her off to the direction of my thoughts because she immediately resumed her her innocent face. “Forget it, twerp.” I said with mild irritation. “You already got one freebie today, so whatever it is you’re up to – just forget it.”

“Up to?” She asked in mock astonishment, raising one tiny hand to rest lightly on the hollow of her neck. “I’m not up to anyth-“ She cut off, reaching for the radio and turning up the volume with one hand while using the other to wave me to silence – as if I had been the one talking.

“…incation goes out to Ichabod from Erin. She wants to thank you for saving her and she hopes you’re feeling better.” The DJ’s voice blared out of the speakers over top of the introduction of some bubbly pop song I would never listen to, but which was probably a play list favorite among Zoe and her friends. This week, anyway.

“Zoe…” I groaned, reaching over and switching off the radio. “Leave Erin alone.”

“I had nothing to do with this.” She insisted angrily. For a brief moment I almost believed her. Thin I remembered who it was I was dealing with.

“Oh, I see.” I said, my voice dripping with sarcasm. “You just happened to know that Erin would dedicate a song to me. On this station. At this exact time. Makes sense.”

“Well, of course she told me what she was going to do.” Zoe rolled her eyes was she explained. “Otherwise, how could she be sure you would hear it?” She smiled, obviously pleased with her logic. Clever little twerp. I had to give her credit, though. She had apparently covered all of her bases. Of course, it didn’t matter what story she came up with, I could see her fingerprints all over this.

“I’m not stupid, Zoe. Erin and I have never spoken one word to each other before today, the same day you suddenly decide I need a girlfriend.” There, let’s see her wiggle her way out of that one.

“You really hurt her feelings today.” I felt my heart wrench as a riptide of guilt pulled me under. Good wiggling.

“What are you talking about?” My voice sounded wrong, slightly horse for some reason.

“She was flirting with you and you shot her down.” She answered, seeming oblivious to my reaction.

“Because you told her to flirt with me!” I tried sounding angry, but only succeeded in sounding miserable.

“No, I didn’t.” She responded too quickly. Then she smiled and asked, “So you think Erin’s pretty then?”

She had asked the question innocently, as if I wouldn’t know it was a loaded gun aimed straight at every one of my vital organs. “That’s not my point, Zee.”

“Is that a yes?”

She waited patiently, keeping her smile locked on me, until I finally just gave up and admitted the truth. “Yes. Okay? Erin’s pretty, she’s beautiful, that’s not the point. I don’t want pretty girls flirting with me because you told them to.”

“So what you’re saying is that if I hadn’t said anything about fixing you up this morning then you would have asked Erin out?”

“Yes.” I answered after a moment’s consideration.

“Liar. You’ve been in her class for two years and never even introduced yourself.”

“Okay, fine. Maybe I wouldn’t have, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m never going to be ale to show my face in school again.”

“Don’t be melodramatic.” She chided. “How do you know that Erin didn’t already like you and just needed some prompting? You’re not exactly the easiest person in the world to approach.” That was probably as close to an admission of guilt as I was likely to get. I could feel the incredulity on my face. Was this really the angle she was going to play? Did she really think I was dumb enough to believe that Erin Stevens had been harboring a secret crush on me? I concentrated on my driving, trying very hard not to lose my temper. Thankfully, Zoe seemed to sense this and let me be, for once.

After we got home I sat along in the car for a long time, debating on whether or not to just drive off into the sunset; just me and my car. I was more rational than I had been earlier, when I’d had similar thoughts, so I couldn’t ignore the fact that I didn’t have much money and probably wouldn’t make it very far. Why did there always have to be another sunrise?

Zoe was waiting for me, hands on hips, when I walked through the front door.

“Just leave me alone, Zee.” I complained without much hope she would actually listen to me.

Her eyes squinted and her mouth pressed down into a tight line. That was the only warning I got before my entire body itched. I felt like I was wearing a wool straight jacket. “You ARE going to listen to me.” She enunciated each word slowly. “Sitting in your room by yourself all of the time isn’t healthy. I can’t even imagine how lonely it must be, constantly living in a bubble – yet you choose to. You refuse to make friends, you refuse to go to parties, and now you’re refusing ERIN?” She was practically screaming at me by the end and took a deep breath, then started again more calmly. “I don’t understand. I don’t understand your anger, and I don’t understand your depression. I’m trying to help you. You’re my big brother and I love you, Itch.”

I had no idea how to respond to any of that, and for once I was glad for the excuse of being too busy scratching to for a coherent answer. My throughs must have been clear on my face because Zoe relaxed her stance slightly and loosened her drawn face, the itching vanish instantly. Along with my excuse. I really had to figure out how she did that.

“I’m not lonely or depressed.” My voice sounded defensive, though I hadn’t meant it to. I really wasn’t lonely or depressed. Definitely not. I was sure of it.

She continued to glare and I braced myself for another wave of itching, but she merely threw up her hands and stalked away, muttering something about me being difficult.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about her little speech. Angry? Of course I was angry, she was meddling in my life; but I didn’t think I was depressed. Who wanted to go to parties where you didn’t know anybody? Who wanted friends that would spend all of their time ogling your little sister? And did she really think that I would believe her story about Erin Madrugada, she could have any guy she wanted. Well, she could if Zoe lived in another county – but still, it wasn’t like Zoe could date every guy in town. Not all at once, anyway. I knew that none of my mental protestations mattered. Zoe was tenacious: once she got an idea stuck in her head she never gave up on it. Erin and I were doomed to suffer through a lot more awkward moments. I wondered if it was sick that a small part of me looked forward to the next one.

I needed a distraction – fast. Well, I thought glumly, I could always clean my room. It wsn’t my greatest or most thrilling idea ever, but it was slightly less miserable than standing there brooding, and so was an improvement of my circumstances. Hurrying upstairs, I kicked enough of the mess out of the way to allow to close the door, then carefully made my way to the pile of clothes which I was reasonably sure covered my stereo. After some digging, I was rewarded for my keen memory with not only my stereo, but also a shoe box of CDs. I put on my favorite Neon Black album and stood in the middle of the room, taking that moment to simply soak in the music. The sounds of a feminine voice weaving beautifully ribbons around raging guitar riffs filled the small space.

It was an incredibly mind-numbing chore, separating the clothing into piles – clean and dirty – and I quickly left my anger and embarrassment behind. I was amazed at how fast I had gotten all of the rumpled clothing packed up, revealing tiny islands of green carpet and stacks of discarded CDs. I stuffed the clean pile into my trunk and grabbed the much larger pile of dirty clothes for transfer to the laundry room.

On my way through the kitchen I passed Zoe, who had reconnected with the phone and was whispering furiously with one hand cupped over the receiver. Probably some boy problem with one of her friends. Such arguments were common enough occurrences, as some boy one of Zoe’s friends liked would, inevitably, be more interested in Zoe. Nobody ever asked Zoe to talk to a boy for them. It wasn’t the twerp’s fault, but I still felt kind of bad for a lot of the girls; the irony of watching them cry on Zoe’s shoulder after they were done screaming and yelling at her was painful. I imagined it must have been hard for those girls knowing they had to compete with Zoe for the attention of every eligible bachelor in town, especially if they realized that she wasn’t even trying. It must have been really frustrating for the girls who were older than Zoe. It always surprised me that not one of those girls ever waged a smear campaign against Zoe. Sure, they would show up at the house to cry, scream, and yell at her – right before they forgave her – but they never started any nasty rumors. It seemed to be a common enough tactic among teenaged girls, judging from some of the things I had seen on the internet and bathroom walls at school. But everyone loved Zoe too much to drag her name through the mud. It was kind of eerie now that I though about it, like they were automatons under her commad. Zoe the zombie queen.

I’ve been watching way too many B-horror movies, I chuckled to myself and finished loading the washing machine, throwing the rest of the dirty laundry into the hamper. I headed back to

ward my room, noticing Zoe – still on the phone – had visibly relaxed and was flipping through some DVDs spread out on the kitchen table. I suppose the crisis has been averted…brains for everybody!

I made it half-way up the stairs when Zoe’s call stopped my short. “Itch? Could you come down here for a sec?”

I briefly considered making a run for it, but where would I go? I instinctively know that whatever it was Zoe wanted, I wouldn’t like it. In the end, I settled for a sigh before turning around and trudging back into the kitchen.

“Your Highness.” I bowed deeply and took a seat across from her. I was surprised to see she wasn’t on the phone. Surprised and worried – this could only mean she expected an argument.

“Har-har.” She rolled her eyes, but then cleared her throat and put on a serious face. “Did you have plans tonight?”

“Is that what you were whispering about?” I asked. “Forget it. I’m not taking Erin out on some date you had to talk her into.”

“Geez, paranoid much? This has nothing to do with Erin.” Her voice and face were the very picture of innocence, which is why I was suspicious. As crazy as it was, I also felt disappointed this had nothing to do with Erin. Like I said, crazy.

“What, then?” I demanded.

“I want to invite someone over…I need a chaperone.” She actually blushed a little. Cold horror washed over me, this was far worse than anything I could have imagined. I was uncomfortable with guys asking me if Zoe had a date. I certainly didn’t want to play chaperone – ever, if at all possible, but especially not tonight.

“Why to you hate me?” I asked her seriously.

“So would you rather I have a boy over without supervision?” She arched an eyebrow. She had me there. I hung my head in defeat.

“What time?” I mumbled, still not looking up.

She squealed with delight and came around the table to hug me around the shoulders and kiss me on the cheek. “Six o’clock. You’re the best big brother ever!”

“Yeah.” I slid my head onto the table beneath my folded arms. How had it come to this? Even worse, that traitorous part of me which was disappointed this hadn’t had something to do with Erin was still pulsing away in the back of my mind. It occurred to me this was what Zoe’s questions about our parents had been about earlier. She must have known I would get suspicious, so she set up the radio dedication to distract me. Okay, that sounded paranoid even for me. But then, I couldn’t really put anything passed the clever little twerp, she had carried out far more elaborate plans in the past – nothing I could prove, of course, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t behind something.

What really worried me, though, was that she hadn’t tried to get me out of the house for her date. I had the sickening feeling she had just gotten me to volunteer for a trap and now I wouldn’t be able to avoid whatever it was she had planned since I was obligated to chaperone her and whatever boy-wonder she’d managed to rope into helping her. My inner traitor hoped this might still have something, anything, to do with Erin.

I should’ve driven off into the sunset when I’d had the chance.

 

 

 

 

Shooter

Late arrived,

Last sat,

Tight-strapped

To Sharks’ table.

I brush sleeves

Into ante-

Raise stakes blindly-

I slip loaded

Dice down cup

Choose pips

And still gamble

On uncertain outcomes;

A rattle,

A rumble,

A pulse against felt.

Concussive spins

Send skyward prayers

Beg conclusive settlement

Between this pair

Which allows each

Collection

Of the other’s chip.

 

 

 

 

About “Shooter”

I wrote shooter while struggling with my foolish heart’s desire for a woman that nothing could ever happen with. I knew that, but of course the knowledge changed nothing. It occurred to me that even under more ideal circumstances, love is always a gamble. Presumably, we cheat. We choose someone with whom we share interests or important traits- we bet on someone that should stack the odds in our favor. Yet the outcome is always uncertain and the stakes feel so high.

I have since learned to love without requiring reciprocity, which is not anything like easy but there is a rewarding feeling in loving someone even when who they are is someone not in love with you. Loving that person for who they really are and loving them completely. That’s a whole other kind of gamble. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still one of the neediest people I know, I just don’t need to be loved to love-which probably makes me a cat person.

Anyway, “Shooter” is about the uncertainty inherent in matters of the heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Character Study

Who am I?

Am I the convicted murderer? The comic book geek? The weight pit junkie? Am I the college graduate?

I admit it!

I am not the person I portray. I am not that person I want to be. Not exactly. I am not as strong, or fearless, or as selfless as I would like. Sure I try, but I am prone to profound despairs. I so very often want to surrender.

I never do. I always conceive some new ploy or stratagem.  Some false hope. First I convince myself I am backed into a corner, bloodied beyond saving, then I come roaring out ready to fight. I hate myself for that sometimes.

Can any prison sentence rehabilitate that?

Am I my desires?

I would like to laugh more. I want to regret less. I want to live up to more of my ideals. I would like to impose less on the people I love. I want to be just as difficult to deal with as I’ve always been, Maybe in different ways. A little more inspired, a little less foolish. But only a little. I wish I weren’t so crazy. I wish, for just once in my life, someone would love me enough to not leave. No matter the obstacles.

Think I can fantasize that away?

Am I my own creation?

I have worn the skins of so many hastily scribbled characters. I have peeled each off, scrubbed and scraped each away. From each I kept something, clung to some aspect I could not simply cast aside. The faint lines left after erasure. Am I the sum of these collected pieces?

Am I that small core which decides these parts are worth preserving?

The distinction sounds academic, but to me it seems deeply important. Though I cannot articulate how. Or why. Does considering these questions determine who I am? Am I no more than the questions I ask? Am I the answers I come to?

Am I strong enough to lift that off my shoulders?

Am I a work in progress?

I learn. It takes awhile. I am learning that as I strive and sacrifice, I am, in fact, surviving through insanity. I have found that sometimes, with perseverance, I am, in fact, the hero I hope to be are not all that far apart. Sometimes. I have discovered the path to wisdom is paved with perpetually broken hearts. I am learning that the only fate worse that death is a perpetually broken heart. I am learning that my past and my loneliness are as inescapable as this cage.

Does a degree open these doors?

So, who am I?

An untethered island forever floating around the edge of the archipelago. Some flightless creature leaping from cliffs.  A poet, writing with razors across wrists. Just some faceless specter passing through your life. The mixed metaphor which explains nothing and means everything.

A character study carefully wrought from chaos.

 

About “Character Study”

At some point when I first decided I wanted to write, I figured out that I would have to be willing to reveal painful and embarrassing truths if I was ever going to write anything worth reading. Character Study is a kind of self-portrait, intended as a way for me to understand how I saw those truths.

Character Study can be found in my collection Oubliette and in the  graduate issue of Writers bloc.

I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback on this piece in the past and I decided to post it here to see what you all think and because it’s how I’ve been feeling this week.

 

If you would like to purchase a copy of my book Oubliette please contact me.