Flash: Cannot Be Unseen

Photo by Jiří Wagner on Unsplash

Kai stumbled after Aubrey into the Ferry house out of the January weather. The difference between outdoors and indoors felt nearly physical; the old man had upped the protections on his home since his wife gave birth. Even a welcomed friend like himself needed to beware entering uninvited. Kai shuttered to think what would happen if he violated guest rights.  The old man was a first rate wizard.

Today continued the lessons on friction. For third weekend in a row, Kai spent Saturday in the empty ice rink. Kai was certain avoidance spells were possible, though he had only been a student since Thanksgiving when Aubrey had taken him on. But Kai did not think the spell was used to empty the place; after all, who would spend time in an ice rink in January?

He expected that his mentor would be teaching combustion in the middle of July. The old man was quirky that way … or mean, depending on how one interpreted his actions. Today Kai was leaning toward downright malicious. He was sore from the heavy skates on his feet, sore on his butt from falling, sore in his head from trying to grasp the lessons on how to increase and decrease friction, and frozen throughout.

It didn’t help Aubrey was none the worse for wear after nearly twelve hours of torturing him. Yes, Aubrey looked Kai’s age, with stark black hair and solid muscles like he worked side-by-side with Kai landscaping instead of whatever he did as his day job. But Kai knew that Aubrey had to have pushed himself in the rink today, if only to control Kai’s mistakes. Why couldn’t the old man be a little tired?

Struggling to lift his arms to get out of his jacket, Kai watched as Aubrey raced into the living room where his wife was nursing and someone he had never seen before was standing.

“When did you get in child?” Aubrey asked joyfully as he scooped up a stunning redhead and spun her around. “How did you get away?”  A concerned look crossed his mentor’s face as he slid the girl down his body onto the carpet. “And who did you leave in charge?”

The young woman laughed at his exuberance and replied in an Irish lilt.  “I’ve only been here a few minutes. Mom was just introducing me to the young one. And don’t worry, I’ve left the Trio temporarily in charge. They should be able to keep the peace … among themselves … for a few days.”

Kai watched his mentor look the girl up and down … his daughter? Same strawberry hair and clear white skin, enhanced by a spattering of freckles, as Aubrey’s wife Colleen.  The girl was only a couple inches shorter than Aubrey’s five ten. The girl appeared to be a college freshman, an angelic freshman. Her wispy hair desperately escaping a crown braid creating a halo effect backlit from the kitchen. Her off-the-shoulder white dress had lace insets in all the right places. Less bosom-heavy than the earthy Irish beauty of Colleen, Kai was able to see the girl had inherited Colleen’s coloring and Aubrey’s strong lean frame.

He couldn’t not Look. But Kai did try to talk himself out of it. What is Seen cannot be Unseen. That was the first lesson. Aubrey had found Kai in the middle of his first Seeing; a horrific experience brought on by stupidly trying to fit in at work and joining the guys on a marijuana break. The next month was spent bringing his natural gift under control; the following month has been spent learning friction.

As he hung up his jacket, the nineteen year old closed his eyes and opened his inner one. Turning back to where the conversation was continuing between the old man, his wife and his daughter, Kai slowly opened his eyes and tried to focus only on the girl. He didn’t need to see Aubrey stripped of all the natural assumptions people make so is life more palatable EVER again; that scary shit was firmly cemented into Kai brain for the rest of his life. Kai also had no interest in finding out what could hold its own in marriage to the millennium old magician. He tried to use his recent lessons on focus to look only at the newcomer.

The girl’s hair loosed from its braid to cascade down her back in a riot of curls, a far-deeper red than Colleen’s strawberry. Like staring into the heart of a furnace with blue-white flames dancing out of red-black coals. He could feel the heat sear into his eyes. The crown braid formed into a silver diadem, elegantly wrought like a small ivy branch freshly plucked and turned into ice.

The woman spun as he continued to stare. Her blue eyes were like the blue of volcano lakes, promising the same ice and heat, the same serenity and danger of those isolated paradises. She said something as she stalked towards him, but Kai was focused on Seeing, not hearing. Her fingers stretched into inhuman lengths as they curled around his throat. Her skin was the color of winter ice and summer clouds, the dress falling away into illusion.

Her red lips plumped from unkind hope, curled with merciful despair and he could not resist even has her claws drew blood from his neck. Keeping his green eyes on hers he leaned forward to kiss his life and death. Her eyes spoke her name to his soul, both use and true, as his lips touched hers. Closing his eyes to keep the vision with him for the rest of his meager life he deepened the kiss. He felt her breath escape in surprise and the choking grip lessen.

Unthinking, he turned off his gift that usually took him hours to put back in the box and grabbed the curtain of fire with both hands pulling her naked body against his starving one. His tongue warred for dominance with hers.

(words 1,000 – – originally appearing at Sunday Fun on Breathless Press 1/13/2013 – The original photo was from  Sarah Ann Loreth who retains copyright on her photos, with written permission to reuse. I did not asked for said permission. Published on the first blog on 1/13/2013; republished new blog format 7/9/2017)

Flash: One Bloody Morning

Image courtesy of Rob D at FreeDigitalPhotos.net – Cropped and Color adjusted by Erin Penn

Curtis and Duane watched dawn rise from inside the door of the old county armory as they checked their weapons. Yesterday a bear shambling out of woods had frozen the children in terror, but it continued through the fields, not bothering with the humans or the grain they were nursing in the summer heat. Duane had been closest and debated wasting ammo on the large amount of meat the creature represented, but more likely the shotgun would have angered it and that would have created even more of a problem. The three oldest children who the two elders trusted with spears crouched still, their weapons in hand and ready but also unused. No actual danger existed in those few tense minutes except in everyone’s minds.

Even so, as they expanded their fields to feed the new mouths, their encroachment on nature would continue, and nature, even when man ruled the world, never liked her skirts being pushed back. After oiling his axe and checking it pulled smoothly from his holster, Curtis started the same routine with the blades he carried. The gunner counted the few remaining shells to see if a couple more miraculously appeared in the night and glanced longingly at his pistol. Until someone figured out how to make gunpowder of sufficient quality, his police glock was permanently shelved. Old-style shotguns were more forgiving and, thanks to the southern love of hunting, plenty of ammunition available after civilization fell, to the point some even survived the first madness.

Duane nodded at the more primitive weapons humanity was slowly sliding towards as their primary defense against a planet freed from humanity’s control. “The spears, okay?”

“I looked them over while you got lunch packed.” Curtis hefted a light spears. “One needed the head reset, but the kids have been taking good care of them for once. I wish I could make a bow or that a spear thrower thing you talked about. It can’t be too hard.”

“If only the plague had happened twenty years earlier, before everything went electronic.” Duane chuckled blackly. “I only learned to read to pass the detective exam. It was so easy to have the machines read to you.”

“True that, my friend.” Curtis stared over the close orchards and vegetable gardens at the acreage devoted to grain, his aging eyes crinkling to focus on the distant trees walking toward the edge of their maintainable property. “Working at the recycling plant, I remember when the library books went through. Took us less than a day to clear the mess. We had been promised overtime, but the bosses didn’t need it.”

“I would give my leg for an encyclopedia.”

“Yeah, or for google-glass to work again.”

Duane’s nostrils flared, taking in the clean scents; his ears searched for any sound outside of birds welcoming the sun. “If wishes were horses…”

Curtis nodded, not understanding the reference but he had hear the sentiment enough over the years, and continued considering the trees. The young trees growing in the middle of what used to be a city of nearly 80 thousand made preparing for winter easier ever year as they won against mankind’s fallen monuments. No long trips to the edge of town were needed. It had come to them. “We should chop the trees sooner than later. Doesn’t dry wood burn better than green?”

“Yes, I believe so. We weren’t choking on smoke at the end of winter, not like at the start.” Duane considered, chewing his lip. He hadn’t ever camped before things changed, and the closest he had come to flame was firing up the gas grill at his house. Even after seven years, his lack of manly outdoor activity left holes of knowledge which his grandfather would have laughed at.

Footsteps echoed in the hallway from the dedicated dining area where the children were eating breakfast before another day in the fields. The steps were longer and louder than most of the charges were capable of making but hurried. Yo-yo, the eldest of the children, entered in the foyer area where the men were located at a swift pace just short of running. “Sirs.” His voice cracked, and he stopped at the edge of the painted line, his thin body quivering. Children were not allowed unsupervised in the weapon area.

“What is it?” Curtis growled.

Rocking to one side, Yo-yo swallowed, his newly prominent Adam’s apple bobbing, then coughed to reset his vocals. “Vera’s not coming out of the bathroom.”

“How long has it been?” Duane asked more calmly than Curtis. Curtis had never wanted to be a parent, getting snipped while still in high school as soon as he hit the legal age, and it showed in his dealings with their forty-some charges.

Ducking his head, Yo-yo said muttered, “I think she went in last night.”

Curtis exploded. “What? And you are only telling us now?” Yo-yo’s bowed form shivered.

Putting a hand on Curtis’ shoulder, Duane squeezed hard until Curtis looked at him in anger instead of the child. “Which bathroom, honey? Take us there.”

Yo-yo nodded jerkily, not raising his eyes, and took off on the quick walk toward the stairs for the second floor. No running was the first rule enforced on the survivors. Curtis already pushing fifty way back when and Duane, only thiry-two, weren’t up to chasing the first children Duane had found while searching for supplies all those years ago.

“She says she is dying.”

Duane nearly missed the quiet words in the echoes of their feet on the cement stairs. “She told you this?”

Slightly louder, Yo-yo continued, “Through the door. She won’t let anyone in.” His voice broke through two different octaves, one low and one high.

Curtis grunted as he marched up the steps behind Duane.

“Anything else you can tell me?”

The boy thought a moment before responding to the younger adult. “She’s been acting weird the last couple of days. Screaming at the babies and then crying about it. She even slugged Jasper.”

“Did Jasper need slugging?” Duane’s voice held a smile. Jasper was third eldest of the children, and the only kid over twelve they didn’t trust with a spear.

Yo-yo’s volume reached natural relaxed speaking levels when he replied. “No more than normal. He was just chitters.” The young teen stepped onto the landing before the heavy fire door waiting for the adults to catch up.

Shortly, he led them to the back bathroom next to the old offices they used for storage. Water pressure did not make it up here, even with the pumps some of the Parma Trust managed to spit together for them, but the toilet still flushed and they kept several buckets of water upstairs as a precaution against fires made by candles during the winter months. When the water was freshened, the old water was put in the toilet tanks in the three upstairs bathrooms. The water returned through the gravity-driven pipes when someone did a quick side trip while getting stuff out of storage.

“She’s in here.” Yo-yo whispered.

Duane knocked.

“Go away.” The voice was laced with tears, anger, and pain.

“Vera,” Duane dropped his voice into what he thought of as his baby smoothing tones. “may I come in?”

“No!” She screamed in terror. “Go away. I got the Mumps.”

Curtis yelled back. “You ain’t got the Mumps, girl.”

Duane stared at the older man a moment before suggesting, “Why don’t you get the kids moving? Breakfast has to be done by now.”

“Fine, my friend, it’s your funeral.” Raising his hands, Curtis turned and walked away.

It usually was. Curtis and Duane had found each other during the crazy months after the mumps struck people who had refused to get vaccinated for an “extinct” disease, then mutated with a flu strain and became effectually a new, practically air-borne disease passed easily in fluids like sneezes. In three months humanity dropped from eight billion to a few million at best guess. The pandemic took its share, but human stupidity took more. Immune adults were rare and got rarer as they fought over supplies which will last for years at the new population levels; those that didn’t commit suicide at the first sniffle. At least three countries set off something nuclear before the internet stopped working; America wasn’t the idiot on the block for once and got all of its plants decommissioned safely. The last act of the forty-ninth President was ordering all the nuclear bombs be disassembled. Number fifty-two, the first woman President, two weeks later, confirmed it was done.

Duane waited until Curtis and Yo-yo started down the stairs. “One of these days,” he muttered while no one could hear. He didn’t feel any better. He needed Curtis desperately, and the old man had started rubbing his left arm when he didn’t know Duane was looking.

Knocking again at the door, Duane shook the last of his anger away. He never had any for the children. “Vera, please.”

“Go away.” She moaned from the other side of the door.

“Why do you think you have the Mumps, honey?”

“I’m sick, so sick. And I hurt really bad.”

The door wasn’t lockable, but privacy was priceless when none was available. Leaning a muscular arm against the door frame and resting his forehead against it, Duane talked to the door as gentle as he talked to her when she was seven and he had found her half-starved wandering the street, his second foundling before he had even met Curtis. He ruthlessly cut off the memory of his first foundling, a baby so dehydrated no amount of formula could save, and the next three who succumbed to Mumps a month after he rescued them from a pack of feral dogs. “Lots of things can do that Vera. No one has had Mumps for a long time.”

“We got new people.” She pointed out.

The Trust had gone through and dropped off four more kids at their make-shift orphanage. Humanity connected through a bunch of over-zealous do-gooders, at least in his part of the world. They were helpful enough, as restoring the ancient well setup for the armory witnessed, but they meddled as much as they helped.

“And they are all healthy, honey.”

He didn’t hear anything on the other side in response until the unmistakable sound of vomiting happened. He parsed the sound again. Dry heaves, he thought, if she had been emptying her stomach all night and not come down for breakfast.

“I’m coming in.” He announced and took a step back from the jam to open the door.

“No!” She screamed. “I’m bleeding and everything. You’ll catch it.”

“Bleeding?” He stopped before pushing the door open. “Vera, where are you bleeding?”

“Does it matter?” Her voice shook. Pain filled the cracks between the terror controlling her, but a bit of embarrassment oozed out in the last question.

“Of course it does.” Firmness meant to reassure pushed the words to the small room Vera huddled in.

Two quick words bounced back. “My pee-pee.”

Duane closed his eyes for a moment, then braced his arms and opened the door. The little girl he had raised for the last seven years curled naked on the floor in a fetal position with blood streaked across her thighs, some white cotton cloth was stuffed a water bucket beside her. The toilet had a little yellow tinge from the most recent dry heaves, while the bucket red-tinged water had floats, likely from her first round of vomiting which stuck to the nightshirt she wore in the barracks with the other children. He ran his eyes over her tear-streaked face, searching for any tell-tale swelling, then down her back to her just barely noticeable hips. Hips he had never noticed before.

Fourteen. Little Vera, the oldest of the girls in his care was fourteen.

Yo-yo’s voice change should have told him what would happen soon to Vera and Belle, but he didn’t think, hadn’t remembered. Fighting starvation had driven them so long and delayed things in the children he had long forgotten about. Dropping on the dirty floor beside her, he pulled this daughter of his soul into his lap. She fought him the whole way. “No, no. You can’t get sick. I am sick. No.”

“Yes, yes. Everything is fine.” He cooed back. “You are not sick. Everything is fine.”

She sobbed louder, the fighting only half-hearted.

“It’s normal, honey.” He stroked her black hair, rocking the child. “It’s normal.”

(words 2,084 – first published April 30, 2017)

Flash: No More Cheeseburgers

Cheeseburger Stock Art

Image courtesy of Mister GC at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

“Mom, it’s the end of the world!” Gilbert charged into the house, slamming doors behind him, shedding books, backpack, papers, and electronics in his wake from his day of college classes.

His mother looked up at her teenage son from the oven where she just pulled out a sheet of baked French fries. “Of course it is.”

“No, I mean for real! It’s all over the news.”

“Uh-huh.” His mother nodded moving the fries to a serving platter. “Would you like a cheeseburger or hamburger?”

“Why is that even a question?” Gilbert put his hands on the back of a kitchen charge, shaking in his urgency. “A meteor is about to hit Earth!”

“Correction, the meteor will hit Earth in a little over nine months.” His mother tsk’ed. “Please do not exaggerate.”

Blinking at the calm his mother produced, entirely at odds from the explosion of opinions on campus when the news was released a couple hours ago, Gilbert shook his head before whining, “But the world is going to end.”

“But not today or tomorrow, and I am assuming you are hungry now.” His mother nodded to the sizzling burgers. “So tell me, cheese or no cheese.”

“Cheese, please.” Gilbert muttered weakly, pulling out the chair before sitting down. He planted his elbows on the table and buried his head in his hands.

After placing Swiss cheese slices on the ground meat patties and returning the cheese to the refrigerator, Heather brought over fries platter and ketchup. “Where is my kiss?”

Dropping his hands to the table, Gilbert kissed the cheek his mother presented.

“Much better. Now make yourself useful and get out the drinks.” Heather returned to the stove. “I’m your mother, not your waitress.”

“Yes mom.” Gilbert got up again and started setting the table for dinner. “I just don’t understand why you aren’t bothered. The news says there will be anarchy, looting, lawlessness.”

“Well it’s not going to happen in this house.” Heather said firmly. “People who do that are the stupid ones, and you and your sister are not stupid.”

Gilbert’s bushy eyebrows met in a frown while putting the glasses out. “I … what?”

“Oh, for the love of goodness.” Heather pulled the toasted buns from the oven and placed them on the table beside the lettuce leaves, onion slices, and tomatoes. “Anyone who goes the panicked mob route is just asking to die. The president already declared marshal law, and the National Guard has been deployed. She promised to bring on-line the draft for both men and women, and veterans should call in to the nearest post according to their last name.” Sliding the cheeseburger patties on a heated plate, Heather joined her son at the dinner table. “I got to call in at the gadawful hour of three a.m.”

Heather bowed her head and her son followed suit. “Dear Lord, during this time of trouble, please give our leadership the strength and wisdom they need. Give us the endurance and intelligence to be able to help them. Always remind us to look first to you for guidance.” Gilbert winced at the very pointed comment. “And bless this food unto our bodies. In your name, Amen.”

“Amen.” Gilbert echoed before grabbing a warmed bun. “So you are getting called up again?”

“What else did you expect?” Heather squirted some ketchup on her bottom bun, leaving the top of the bun on the serving platter since carbs were her biggest enemies in her ongoing battle of the bulge. “Though it’s likely only for the initial check-ins since hospitals will be a priority staffing issue.” His mother’s nursing career spanned three deployments overseas and half a decade stateside since she quit the army to raise her children after her civilian husband died of cardiac arrest.

“So I don’t even get to see you before it all ends.”

Heather pointed The Finger at her son. “Okay, stop that negativity right there. I raised you better than that. Heck, your father, bless his black heart, raised you better than that. What are the solutions?”

In the middle of biting into the burger when the question was asked, with mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and meat juices dripping onto the plate, Gilbert chewed and swallowed before answering. He wasn’t going to risk his ears getting boxed for talking with his mouth full. “The meteor is going to hit the Earth. It’s too big to move. The news says it’s nearly eight kilometers.”

“Try again, that is not a solution.” The military officer grilled her son.

“Whatever.” Gilbert picked up a fry and considered it, slipping into programming mode. “Okay, there are three states to this equation. First we do nothing and continue as we are.”

His mother nodded. “With the minor change of controlling the anarchy and any idiots who use disruption to become petty dictators.”

“Scat, Dad would have loved this.” Gilbert’s dad taught high school history and ran the debate team most of his life, in between serving local political offices and as an adviser for state and military offices wherever they had been stationed.

“Focus.”

“All right, so option two is we try to move the rock and option three is we dig in and make an ark.” Everyone at the college figured the politicians didn’t release the news until they had the ark option all set up for their families and are already hiding underground.

“That is my conclusion as well.” After scooping some more onto her plate, his mother offered her son a half-filled platter. “More fries?”

Gilbert dumped the rest on his plate before smothering them in mayonnaise and ketchup. At nineteen, his appetite still hadn’t found a level between his track and his soccer scholarships and his continuing growth. Six foot would be in the rear view mirror in a few months, if he lived through the end of the world.

Heather steepled her fingers. “So the first step is control the lunacy and the second step is to direct our energies to humanity’s survival. Which option do you prefer?”

“I don’t see how we are going to move that rock, so I guess the ark is the best bet.”

“Hide instead of act.” Heather shook her head. “Well, half of humanity is conservative and half is action, which is how we survived so far. Diana takes more after me and you take more after your dad.”

Gilbert protested. “When action will accomplish nothing, using your brain is the best option. In fact it is always the best option – use the brain before acting. And in this case, the brain says a conservative reaction is best.”

Shaking her hand side to side, Heather responded. “Yes and no.”

“Right. So your turn.” Gilbert started on his second burger.

“Well, first we need to get everyone concentrating on the rock instead of panicking. We can go back to our petty bickering later, just like Africa did once Europe left. I think the U.N. is already working on that, though I expect some of the extremist groups to respond poorly.” Heather’s face hardened. “I also expect the kid gloves will come off and we will stop pussy-footing around with what is ‘humane’ and ‘civilized’ during this time.”

Gilbert smirked a moment, then took great delight and saying a word his mom constantly used on him for the last five years since she returned from overseas. “Focus.”

Heather’s brown eyes sparkled and a wry grin crossed her face before she started speaking again. “The problem with the ark solution is the limited amount of what can be saved. Therefore moving that stupid rock into the sun or at least off orbit is the better option.”

“I realize most of humanity will still die, but that is the trade-off for the ark. It is the more viable solution.” Gilbert tucked the last of the burger in his mouth.

Heather stood up and began to pick up the empty dishes. “There will be no more cheeseburgers.”

“I know that mom, but it’s okay; I’m full.” Gilbert stood up to help her load the dishwasher.

“No, Gilly, what I mean is there will be no more cheeseburgers after the ark. The cows won’t fit.”

Gilbert froze, glass in hand. “No more cheeseburgers?”

“Yeah, even if you get chosen for the ark because of your brains, brawn, genes, and youth, and don’t get all big-head on me, but you would be a prime choice, but cows take up too much landscape to raise so there will be no more cheeseburgers or steak.”

“Well, fuck that. We need to move that rock.”

His mom smiled evilly. “Why don’t you get on internet and get your friends on it. SpaceX has a rocket going up in two days and needs number crunchers to figure out density programs for their sensors. They advertised the crowd sourcing just before you came home.”

(Words 1,478; first published 7/17/2016)

Flash: Memory of a Lifetime

Broken Egg With The Yolk And White Oozing Out

Image Courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Cheryl hummed happily as she unwrapped a cracker for April. Her baby immediately started working on it with her limited teeth, making a gummy mess.

The weekend had been wonderful, just her and her husband, with the added bonus of the children spending quality time with their uncle. Having breakfast out after picking the kids up was the perfect end to the perfect weekend, giving them time to be a family before jumping back into never-ending chores and work of a two-career household. These were the memories to last a lifetime.

The waitress finished taking Joe’s order and asked “Anything for the child?” she said nodding to Scott sitting neatly in his booster seat.

Cheryl smiled with parental pride at her oldest. “I think he is old enough to order his own breakfast.”

“Okay, little man, what would you like?”

“I want to devour the unborn.” Scott carefully enunciated and spaced words, his volume only slightly less than his normal four-year old tones.

Cheryl looked at the waitress mortified. Her cheeks flushed when she realized most of the diners had heard his request. The nearest two tables stopped eating and turned to stare at her family. No one could have misunderstood what he had said.

When looking for support, she discovered her husband had covered his mouth with his hands. His whole body was shaking and tears were escaping the sides of his eyes. Cheryl shot death towards him, until he calmed enough to remove his hand and translate. With only a slight gasp he said, “Eggs, he want eggs.”

The waitress nodded cautiously before asking the boy, “And how would you like them cooked?”

Proudly Scott said. “Shattered and beaten with the juice flowing forth.”

Joe’s grin widened until he saw his wife’s face. After rearranging his features into a sterner expression, the father relayed, “Scrambled but runny.”

The waitress scratched the order down. With a wince, she asked, “And what would you like to drink, little man?”

“Utter madness.”

Joe’s head tilted as he considered the request. “… aha, Scott, do you mean ‘Udder’?” He  clearly pronounced d’s.

Scott nodded several times. “UD-DER madness.”

Turning to the waitress, Joe let her know, “He wants chocolate milk.”

The woman quickly retreated to the kitchen.

Cheryl hissed at Joe, “Your brother is NEVER to babysit again!”

(words 386 – first published 4/10/2013; republished new blog format 7/3/2016)

Flash: Joelie and Sarah’s Last Day

Water visible through Ice

Image Courtesy of Jeremy Ricketts at Unsplash.com
Cropped by Erin Penn

Joelie cinched the saddle girdle tighter, letting the town’s mayor attempt to make him change his mind. You would think after raising her from birth, she would know only one person got him to change him mind about anything. Finally he interrupted, “Jillie, hon, your mom ain’t goin’ to last through winter and I can’t stop that. Travel may end it sooner, but she will see something she wants to see.”

“Dad, she is barely conscious. She isn’t going to notice anything, and it’s a full day’s travel even with my horse.” The five foot nothing blond dynamo argued. “Shouldn’t mother die in the comfort of her own bed?”

Satisfied the horse was ready and everything was packed for the journey, the old farmer went into his one-room house. “Your mom has never been one to choose comfort.” He sat in a chair to change his boots and add a second pair of socks.

“At least let me see if the priest from Riding-in-the-Mud can help give travel ease.” The young woman trailed her father into her childhood home.

Joelie stood, pulling on a traveling cloak. “Magic helped the first year, but now the Tester has placed this challenge before us. We can do this on our own.” Touching the pile of skin and bones swathed in blankets, Joelie stroked his wife’s cheek. “Sarah, time to go.”

Her blue eyes focused on his for the first time in days, reassuring him that the love of his life was still with him and he was doing the right thing. Picking up the blankets and padding, he carried the precious bundle out. Despite her having been several inches taller than him and outweighing him most of their joint lives, the last two winters of illness had taken their toll and now she was lighter than a grain sack.

****

Two days of frozen purgatory guiding a horse through his normal, slightly illegal, hunting grounds finally ended. He had never been one to understand how the King could own the entire forest. He was pretty sure the White Stag ruled it.

Jolie had wrapped Sarah tightly during the day and provided her his heat at night. He wanted to carry her during the day as well, or ride the horse and provide her needed warmth, but he needed to break the trail for the horse and he fell too many times.

The horse went to the edge of the water without prompting and Jolie started pulling what was left of his wife down. He heard a whisper and leaned closer in. “Are we there?”

Seeing clear eyes and ruby checks, Jolie gave thanks to the Tester for giving him a final moment with her. “Aye, we have arrived.”

Twenty years ago, she had laid into him during one of their few arguments, saying he did not have a romantic bone in his body. Sarah had just finished a round of afternoon sickness, since morning sickness was not enough for his exceptional wife, and the additional weight at six months on her swelling feet looked painful even to him after spending the day in the field. It took time to get her to this location then, but never did she ever question his romance again. Partially because if she did, he would have dragged her the long hike there and back to revisit this place.

Sitting on the edge of a boulder half-in and half-out of the waterfall pool, he settled his forty-year old woman in his lap and let her look around. A magical spring feed the creek a little further up. The water stayed a constant fifty degrees, creating a pool warm in winter and cool in summer. The steam rising from the waterfall coated the branches nearby with crystal ice. A few flashsprite made the glade their home during the winter, and danced among the branches setting off rainbows of color. The Valley-Home water lily floated pure white from a dozen different locations in the perfect blue of the pool. Green grass grew at the edge of the pool, where the warm water pushed back the hoar frost.

Valley-Home lilies could never be moved from their home water pool. He tried for years to transplant some from the spring to the irrigation pond in the north fields until Sarah had requested he “stop killing the flowers, you fool. I can remember their scent just fine.”

Joelie held Sarah, rotating her head from where it rested on his shoulder throughout the day and sunset so she could see everything. He feed her bits of trail meat after chewing it soft. At night the flashsprites danced faster among the ice, snow, and blue water. The world was a blaze of color and the jasmine-like scent of the Valley-Home released at full strength just before the white flowers closed for the night. Sometime after sunset Sarah slipped away.

(Words 814; first published 6/19/2016)