Thursday, March 28, 2019

Weekly Story #38: Invasive Species

Looking back, it's pretty easy to tell where this came from. I hadn't had a vacation in a while, and a few months, I was feeling especially irritable. Fortunately, I took a week off earlier this month, and I feel a lot better. It did occur to me that the central premise is sort of similar to the rage spores from the 80's Transformers cartoon. I guess it just happened to be lurking in my subconscious that week.

 

INVASIVE SPECIES

The seed was planted early in the morning, in the dark, with no witnesses. Even the neighbor's dog never noticed anything unusual. Neither did Walter Ennis when he left his house later that morning to go to work.

The seed quietly germinated in his front lawn for three months, until Walter came home one otherwise uneventful day and spotted a strange flower next to one of his bushes. It had iridescent petals, purple from one angle, gold from another. He'd never seen a flower like it, certainly not in this neighborhood. He was no botanist—he could mow a lawn and whack weeds, but flowers were beyond him. And this one looked more like something you'd see in a rainforest.

He took a photo with his phone, went inside, and posted it online. Maybe someone out there would know what it was, and how it could have gotten into his lawn.

By morning, he had no replies.

On the way to work, Walter took a sniff of the flower, and found a strong scent that reminded him of a bowl of mixed fruit.

There was one person in the office who might know something about it. Matilda, one of the customer service reps, decorated her desk with some flowers she grew at home, taking advantage of the light from the window nearby. She was constantly swapping new varieties in and out. Walter showed her a picture of his flower. "This showed up in my lawn yesterday," he said. "Any idea what it is?"

She shook her head. "Can't say I have. Looks gorgeous, though. And you don't know where it came from?"

"Not a clue." He put his phone in his pocket. "But it's not a problem. Just one of life's little mysteries."

"Well, let me know if you need any gardening tips."

Walter moved on to his desk, and before he sat down, found it strangely sparse. Post-Its on the monitor, cheat sheets on the cubicle walls, but for the most part, rather lifeless. He did have another window closeby for sunlight… And there was the water cooler just a short walk away…

After work, he bought a flower pot, dug up the iridescent flower, and took it to the office the next morning. His desk looked lovelier already. Now he could be greeted each day with that bright fruity aroma.

Matilda stopped by his cubicle for a closer look. "Oh wow, it's even better in person. And such a strong scent. I can smell it from here."

"Glad you like it," Walter said.

The day seemed to fly by, and Walter went home feeling like he'd accomplished more in eight hours than he had in a whole week.

As he sat down on the couch, he checked his phone and found he had a notification on his post about the flower. He had one reply. The fact that it was in all-caps was not a good sign.

BURN IT! BURN IT RIGHT NOW!1! THAT THING DAMN NEAR RUINED MY LIFE I HATE IT SO MUCH. KEEP IT AWAY FROM YOU'RE COMPUTER TOO ITS STEALING OUR SECRETS. THAT FLOWER IS A MENACE!!!1!! 
Posted by: GoroManda

And that was about thirty seconds Walter would never get back. Probably some troll who thought he was funny. How could a flower be a threat? It made Walter think of some 60's protester placing a flower into the barrel of a National Guardsman's rifle. Real flower power, man.

It would take a week for everything to turn amiss.

As Walter headed for his desk with his coffee, he noticed Kent from Processing coming up the aisle. Walter started to wave, but Kent ignored it and bumped Walter in the shoulder. Some of the coffee spilled over the rim and dribbled onto Walter's shirt. Before Walter could even complain, Kent had left the room.

"What was that about?" Walter said as he passed by Matilda's desk.

"What was what about?" she said.

"Kent. He seemed to be in a bad mood. Made me spill my coffee."

"And that's my business how?"

"I'm… sorry?"

"Do I look like I'm here to listen to your problems? No, I'm here to listen to customers bitch at me and this company all day. So you just go do your job, and I'll do mine. Okay? Okay."

Walter stood frozen for a moment, and walked to his desk without another word.

He checked his email, shared with the entire office. The first message he clicked turned out to be a massive argument between about five people over a box of leftover sesame chicken. He left that alone and reviewed the rest of his messages, then his bug reports. At least none of the coding problems were too extreme. Simple enough to knock out fairly quickly. He sniffed the flower and got to work. Quietly.

The next few days were similarly tense. Gene passed along some project notes saying "I know you'd rather piss around on Reddit, but please get to work on this ASAP, or else." He'd never spoken to Walter like that before, and Walter couldn't think of a thing he was doing differently from usual. As for Matilda, she no longer responded to greetings at all, instead giving only quick grunts. And the argument about the sesame chicken showed no signs of slowing down.

That Friday afternoon, an hour before Walter clocked out, he found another reply to his post. This one, at least, looked like it was written by an adult.

I don't know what kind of flower that is, but I had one just like it appear in my garden out of nowhere. It had a sort of sublime quality that I found appealing, so I brought it inside. It must have some kind of strange pheromones because my husband and I both started acting differently after bringing it in. We'd fight at the drop of a hat, over the smallest, stupidest things. Finally our little boy buried it in the backyard, and the fighting stopped. I know that probably doesn't help. Just because it was potent for me doesn't mean it will be for you. Maybe you should take it to a scientist for study?
Posted by: ViolinTale

Walter reread the message to make sure he understood it properly. It was one thing to rant incoherently about an exotic flower to strangers on the Internet, but botany10000's post described the atmosphere at the office pretty well. Yet the connection still seemed so flimsy. All this conflict, caused by a flower? By that logic, Matilda's collection should have driven everyone into a frenzy.

Still, though. None of this had started before he brought this flower in. And ever since he placed it there, it had gotten bigger and taller, and grown more leaves, as if it thrived in this environment even more than it would have in his lawn.

At least the weekend was coming up. Maybe the time away from the office would do everyone some good.

He saved some files to his USB drive to work on over the weekend, but when he pulled it out, he noticed something odd. Some strange dirt had gotten onto one of the other USB ports. The dirt sparkled in spots, as if it had bits of glitter and metal mixed in. Odder still, it formed a sort of trail leading to the bottom of the flower pot. One of the roots was poking out.

Now this was impossible. This flower pot was a quarter of an inch thick. No way could it have rotted that quickly, and no way could a root, of all things, pierce through it so easily.

Walter reached forward to pick some of the dirt away.

His hand snapped back. Walter rubbed his arm. He hadn't touched a thing. Now an ache ran from his wrist to his shoulder. His arm had moved entirely on its own. As if something in his brain wanted to stop him from clearing the dirt away.

He decided to leave it alone for the weekend. You know something's wrong when you're getting suspicious of a flower.

* * *

On Sunday, more people posted replies to his thread.

Hi, count me as another victim of one of these flowers. I know it's hard to believe, but I'm convinced these things are intelligent. I put it next to my computer, and next thing I know there's dirt on the USB drive, my files are missing, and I'm getting all sorts of weird and creepy Russian emails. Then my dog ate it.
Posted by: Reimu1994
I am a botanist at Columbia University, and one of these had my whole lab at each other's throats. We ran some tests, and I don't want to say too much before we publish, but what we found was totally bizarre. We don't even know what its nearest relative is. 
Posted by: HowardPhD

Walter posted a reply:

HowardPhD, do you have any idea where it came from?
Posted by: Nanmo

He got a private message in response.

HowardPhD: Can I swear you to secrecy?
Nanmo: Of course.
HowardPhD: Absolute secrecy? I am severely limited in what I can tell the public.
Nanmo: It's okay, I handle a lot of sensitive information at work.
Nanmo: But I think this flower's having an effect on my office now. I need to know what's going on.
HowardPhD: All right.
Howard PhD: Get ready, because this will be hard to believe.
HowardPhD: We found a separate creature living inside the ovary of the flower. It seemed to have been there all along. Whatever it was, it didn't look like anything that exists on Earth.
HowardPhD: As soon as we found it, it tried to hide, then vaporized itself.
HowardPhD: All our problems stopped as soon as that happened.
Nanmo: You're not saying what I think you're saying?
HowardPhD: Are you thinking that the flower may have come from an extraterrestrial source?
Nanmo: Are you serious?
HowardPhD: Check my post history. I'm no crank.

Walter took HowardPhD up on the challenge. What he found were several threads about botany, including an "Ask the Botanist" thread where Dr. Howard T. Rothke gave his credentials. Dr. Rothke was indeed listed among Columbia's faculty, and had enough awards to show he knew what he was talking about. Walter even found a few posts that hinted something about the mysterious flower: one about conflict among grad students in the lab, and another on a study about a newly discovered plant species.

Nanmo: Yeah, you're pretty legit.
Nanmo: So the flower's an alien?
HowardPhD: I'm not fully prepared to say yes, but it's likely.
HowardPhD: The creature inside behaved less like a cornered animal and more like a captured spy.
HowardPhD: I couldn't tell you how it got here. Maybe a ship flew into orbit and scattered the seeds. I can only guess.
Nanmo: Did it do anything with your computers?
HowardPhD: Possibly. My PC logged a ton of activity, even when I wasn't using it.
Nanmo: Then what if it was a spy? What's it trying to find out?
HowardPhD: I wish I could say.
Nanmo: What do I do with my flower?
HowardPhD: I'd like to say you should follow GoroManda's advice. But if there is an intelligent creature in there, that might be going too far.
HowardPhD: If nothing else, definitely get it away from your office.
Nanmo: I'll try. It stopped me from clearing dirt off my USB port.
HowardPhD: Hm.
HowardPhD: Maybe a signal from the flower?
HowardPhD: Or maybe something else from the flower?
Nanmo: I can't believe I'm discussing this with an actual scientist.
HowardPhD: I can't believe I'm an actual scientist discussing this.

***

The next day, Walter hesitated a moment before sitting down. Part of him wanted to pour his coffee right on the head of the flower, see if that improved morale around the office. But if Dr. Rothke was right, and there was potentially a tiny astronaut in there, Walter knew he couldn't go through with it. He didn't even like killing cockroaches. Besides, it probably had some way to prevent him from doing anything, just like the dirt on Friday.

A hand pressed on his shoulder. Mr. Pringle had come up behind him, with Gene by his side. "Good morning, Walter. Or, I forget, is it Walt? I was hoping we could have a talk in my office."

"Sure," Walter said. "What about?"

"Just come with me."

Walking behind the manager and team supervisor, Walter took a moment to survey the office. Some of the CSRs were hanging their heads in silent frustration. Another was locked in a touchy conversation on her headset. Matilda hadn't arrived, and some of her flowers didn't seem to be doing so great. Many of them sagged, and their petals withered.

Gene shut the door to Mr. Pringle's office behind Walter, and directed him to the chair in front of the desk.

"Everybody seems to be rather stressed out," Mr. Pringle said as he sat down. "Could be we've all had family events happen at once, and I'm hoping it'll pass soon. How have you been holding up lately?"

Walter had figured the situation in this office couldn't escape management's notice. "I've been doing all right. At least, I haven't had anything too big to complain about."

"I'm glad to hear that." Mr. Pringle rocked his chair back and forth. "In that case, maybe you can help us with something."

Gene slid a folder toward Walter. Inside was a printout of three days' worth of computer logs—files, processes, IP addresses, some of which had been highlighted. Walter flipped through them. "What is this?"

"The highlighted items," Gene said, "are attempts made from a terminal in our office to access files from various government agencies—Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, Homeland Security, the Pentagon, NASA—including highly classified data."

"Walter," Mr. Pringle said, "all this is from your workstation."

"What?" Walter flipped through the papers again.

"Right now we're just trying to get more information. Figure out what's going on. How do you think this happened?"

"That's what I'm trying to figure out." Walter was sweating. "Look, this one was 7:45 PM. That's after I clocked out. And here, this one's from Saturday. And this… And this… None of this happened while I was here."

Gene said, "It would take an idiot to hack the Pentagon during work hours. It's not possible these were scheduled tasks?"

"Mr. Pringle…" Walter rose from his chair. "You have to believe me, I'd never do this. I love working here. Even if I could hack the Pentagon of all places, why would I want to throw this away?"

"That's definitely a very good question," Mr. Pringle said. "Somebody apparently does want to throw their job away. And ours. I assure you, when the federal government notices what's happened, I intend to cooperate to the fullest extent I can. So I need to know who in their right mind would try something like this."

Walter sat back down and pressed his fingers to his scalp. He had his suspicion, but no way could the flower accomplish that much. "Were there any logins while I was gone?"

"Not from what we can tell," Gene said. "Which seems to support my 'scheduled task' theory."

Gene started to get on Walter's last nerve. "And what are all these? They seem to be—"

A scream broke through from down the hall.

Mr. Pringle sprang up and out the door, with Gene following behind him holding the file, and Walter trailing both of them.

Matilda was standing at her desk, holding a bundle of severed flower heads, their stems poking up from their pots. Tears filled her eyes as she searched for any survivors, even one. "No… I worked so hard… Who could have…"

She caught sight of Walter and jabbed her finger at him. "YOU. You and that flower of yours. YOU DID THIS! Couldn't stand the competition, could you?"

"What?" Walter turned to Mr. Pringle. "They were just fine a minute ago."

Matilda picked up a pair of scissors. "Let's see how you like it!"

She rushed over to his desk like a ravenous animal. Gene darted out to try and stop her. Walter, on the other hand, felt strangely at ease. This might wind up solving everyone's problem.

Whatever had stopped Walter before didn't stop her. She grabbed the head of the flower and snipped it right off. "See this?" she said. "Here's what I think of your exotic flower." She threw it to the floor and lifted her foot.

Something burst out of the flower just as her heel crushed it. A tiny blue thing skittered across the office floor. Nobody but Walter seemed to have noticed it, except Mr. Pringle, who tried to stomp on it. The thing got away from him and ran up the wall.

Walter grabbed a cup from the water cooler and pressed it to the wall around the thing, then slid a piece of paper underneath to seal it up, just like he would with a cockroach or spider at home. Once he had the cup upright, he took a peek inside. The thing had three legs and a set of thin tendrils all around its single eye.

"What the hell is that thing?" Mr. Pringle said.

"What in the—?" Matilda rubbed her head, and saw the flower's remains. "Walter? Oh God, what have I done? I'm so sorry, I don't know what came over me."

"It's okay," Walter said. "Not the worst that could have happened today. Mr. Pringle, what would you say if I told you this was our hacker?" He pointed at the cup.

"I'd think you're crazy. But man, that thing is disgusting."

"Mr. Pringle," Matilda said, "I think I need a vacation."

"Yes, you do. Just say when."

"In that case," Walter said, "Do you mind if I take this outsi—"

There was a loud pop inside the cup. Walter let go, and when it landed on the ground, only ash fell out.

"I was going to let you go, you little turd," Walter muttered.

He, Gene, Mr. Pringle, and Matilda stood around the debris of their encounter—the scraps of the flower and the ash of their strange visitor. Walter's main thought was how soon he could tell Dr. Rothke about this… and if he'd get a chance to, with possible federal charges on the way.

Gene took another look at the computer logs. "Hm. Now that I take another look, there are a few listings that seem to represent remote access attempts into Walter's computer, but with no other IP—just encryption."

"Remote access?" Mr. Pringle said. "So someone else tried to hack into us?"

"Quite possibly." Gene showed him the lines in the logs. "And probably used Walter's terminal as a relay point for further hacking. Walter, I apologize. I must have been so eager to convict you that I overlooked some of the finer details."

"D-don't worry about it," Walter said. "I don't think anybody's really been themselves lately." He stooped down and picked up the crushed flower. This thing, and the tiny pile of ash next to it, had traveled untold light years to wind up in his office. On one hand, it was a shame to see it all destroyed, and so quickly at that. On the other, it did try to frame him for cybercrime.

Walter checked his coffee. Still a little lukewarm.

"May I get back to work, Mr. Pringle?" Walter said.

"Certainly. We'll let you know if anything comes up in the investigation."

"In the meantime," Gene said, "see if you can whip up some new security measures."

"Will do," Walter said. Info security wasn't his forte, but he should be able to manage something.

Matilda lingered at his desk.

"Walter, I really am sorry. I wasn't taking very good care of those flowers anyway. And we never even found out what yours was. Is there any way I can make it up to you?"

"Don't worry too much about it," Walter said, picking away some of the dirt off his USB drive. "Now that it's dead, I know a botanist up in New York who might like to have it."

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Weekly Story #37: The Wrath of Dencorah

Have I ever mentioned how much I like kaiju movies? One of my earliest memories is the scene in Godzilla 1985 where we see the Prime Minister's bunker shaking as Godzilla walks over it. So it seems only natural for me to write a story about a kaiju. Or at least, a story about the aftermath of a kaiju attack.

 

THE WRATH OF DENCORAH

Lightning shot from the horn on its snout. The pylons on its shoulders lit up, then electricity filled the sky and the thunder echoed for miles. Windows shattered, trees burst, walls cracked. I remember writhing in pain, wondering how I was still alive after the initial strike. Then the creature started walking. I found an alley closeby, and managed to slip in, but there were many behind me who were too stunned to escape before the giant monster we came to call Dencorah trampled them flat.

I staggered through an alleyway to another street. At least, that's what I think I did. Before I first lost consciousness, I was running in a daze, smoldering, my entire body in pain, Dencorah's steps booming behind me.

No one had ever seen or heard of such a creature until it burst out of the harbor and destroyed several ships. Today we know more about Dencorah, even if there are still further questions. After Congressional hearings, special investigations, and debate in the media, the main result was prison time for a government geneticist named Dr. Michael Yamane, who worked for a lab in Raymondton. News reports made him out to be a mad scientist recklessly unleashing a terrible new weapon upon the world. Personally, I've never been satisfied by that answer.

After I was struck by Dencorah's lightning, the next thing I recall is stumbling into a graveyard by an old Baptist church. Dencorah never came down that way, although when I came to, I did find it had knocked down the buildings around the alley.

I drifted in and out of consciousness most of that night. The thunder still rang in my ears from earlier, though I could hear Dencorah's roar and lightning blasts in the distance. Every so often my right leg twitched. My shoes were missing, and my shirt was in rags. A few times I'd try to move, only to fall flat all over again. My head throbbed. Dreams blended in reality. One minute I was taking a test for a high school class. The next I was staring Dencorah right in the eye.

Eventually I woke up in a hospital bed. An IV drip was hooked into my arm. I heard groans nearby—there were other beds and other patients with me. An intern walked by and saw that I was awake. He came up to me with his clipboard, explained where I was, and said they were working on locating next of kin for every patient. "We couldn't find any identification on you. Can you tell me your name?"

Where had I left my wallet? I'd put it somewhere… left it in my car? But where did I leave my car? Why was I downtown in the first place?

"Again," the intern said, "can you tell me your name?"

"I… I can't remember…" It was on the tip of my tongue. Maybe it started with a G?

"Well, if you remember anything, let us know. The good news is, it doesn't look like you'll need surgery. You also don't seem to have experienced any cardiac or respiratory arrest. If you had, you probably would have died before anyone found you."

A few hours later, I did remember my name. It turned out a friend of mine had been looking for me, so the hospital gave him a call. I sat in the waiting room. The TV was set to the news, with the volume muted. By now the Internet had dubbed the monster "Dencorah," and the name had caught on. Nearly eight thousand people had been killed in its attack. Right now it was wading through the river, its horn sparking fires in its wake. That much I gathered just from the onscreen graphics.

My friend arrived and walked me to the parking lot. It took me a few minutes into the car ride to remember he was also my roommate.

"I literally thought you were a goner," my roommate said. "So many people…"

My right arm was tingling, as if I'd slept on it for two straight days. I turned the radio on, but instead of music, it was wall-to-wall coverage of Dencorah. My roommate turned it off.

"Come on," he said, "we don't need to hear about that." His head started to hunch down. "I don't know what we're going to do. Half the city's gone. I heard from my manager this morning. Most of my coworkers are dead."

I could barely even remember where I worked. I couldn't imagine that was in much better shape.

When I got home, I could hardly believe such a small apartment was my home. My roommate reminded me we had been living there nearly three years now. The first thing I did was open my laptop. My roommate might not have wanted to talk much about Dencorah, but I wanted, no, needed to know more. Surely it would help me piece my own experience back together. What was Dencorah? Why did it attack? What was going to happen next?

Various videos showed the monster bursting out of the water from different angles, right in the middle of the bay, right next to the harbor. I recalled hearing thunder at the time, some several blocks away, even though the sky was clear. Then came explosions. My car was probably scrap metal by now. I had just crossed McAdams Street when the crowds started rushing toward me. Why was I there? Oh, right, to go for a walk—nothing more, nothing less.

Various news articles traced Dencorah's path. It had waded its way down McAdams Street, then veered right on 12th Avenue, before turning back along 14th, passing by the graveyard where I'd lost consciousness. The National Guard lured it out of town.

I kept reading as much as I could about Dencorah well into the night. My roommate offered to cook me a frozen pizza, but the thought of shoving anything down my throat made me nauseous. How could I have survived when so many people didn't? It all seemed so arbitrary. In essence, a wild animal had run loose through the city streets. How was I so special that I deserved to be spared?

I had so many disjointed images in my mind, and I couldn't tell which were real. One in particular haunted me. Something in the monster's face.

Social media was hardly any help. Mostly just the same blurry photos and shaky videos the regular news outlets were showing. That, and desperate appeals by distraught survivors to find friends and relatives who were downtown at the time of the attack. All it did was make me hurt for everyone who had died. Beyond that, everyone seemed to blame the political figure of their choice. One person I saw even blamed vaccines for the monster. Honestly, kind of impressive.

My roommate laid a glass of water on the coffee table next to my laptop. "You need something," he said. "You catch the latest news?"

"I don't think so."

"So you know how they tried to fight it at the Edgewood exit?"

"No. Wait, yes. They used tank fire and flares to draw it out?"

"Right. The problem is, that horn zapped almost everything they threw at it. But check it out." He handed me his tablet, which showed Dencorah's arm. There was a line of red just below the pylon. "It's not bulletproof. Right now it's heading toward Raymondton. So they're setting up an array of lightning rods in its path. The idea's to dissipate the lightning so it's less likely to hit the rockets."

By now we know the plan worked—Dencorah was killed by a single missile right between the eyes. Until then, however, we could only speculate on what would happen. There was still so much speculation on what did happen.

"Raymondton?" I said.

"Yeah, it's weird," my roommate said. "Almost like there's something it wants there. I thought it'd make for the base at the foot of the mountain. But nope. It even passed right by the nuclear plant. It seems to know where it's going."

"Knows where it's going… Is… Is it intelligent?" Again, that image in my mind…

My roommate lowered his head. "I hope not. It's one thing to know so many people were killed. I don't wanna think about all of them getting murdered." He took his tablet back. "Come to think of it… One of the buildings that thing destroyed was that federal building downtown. And I don't mean he bumped into it by accident—he totally smashed it."

I remembered from the maps and timelines I'd read. Dencorah had turned around as soon as it crushed the federal building. I had assumed it got bored and started looking for something else to destroy. Now I wondered if it had simply accomplished what it came for.

I could have sworn it looked at me when it passed by the graveyard.

"No kidding?" my roommate said. "Looked right at you?"

"What?" I said. "Did I say that out loud?"

"Loud and clear." My roommate looked at his tablet again. "Graveyard…" He flipped through and showed me a photo. "That's not you, is it?"

In the background was Dencorah, marching through a burning city, streams of electricity threading down from its horn. In the foreground was a small Baptist church next to a graveyard. And in that graveyard was a single figure, lying on the ground, his shirt and shoes scorched off.

"That is me." I was on my side, looking out at the monster. And the monster at least seemed to be looking back. "It has to be."

"God, you are lucky," my roommate said. "It let you go."

My leg twitched. And I remembered.

That look on its face. It looked at me, turned its head at me, saw me. I remember clenching up, waiting for a lightning bolt to finish me off. Its shoulder pylons lit up. The horn sparked. Then it flashed. I threw my arms up in front of me.

But nothing happened. No thunder, no heat, no pain.

I looked back up at Dencorah. Its eye remained fixed on me.

All Dencorah did was turn up the corners of its mouth, and continue on its path.

Dencorah had spared me, not out of mercy, not out of lack of interest, but as a joke. It had put me in its debt, a debt I could never possibly fulfill. The rest of my life, whenever my leg twitched, or I forgot something I'd always known, or my heart started to feel funny, I would think of that contemptuous grin, and remember that I was far from lucky.

The giant monster we now called Dencorah had simply allowed me to live, on a whim, as it passed its judgment on the rest of the city.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Weekly Story #36: The Accuser

It's funny, when I wrote this one six weeks ago, I wasn't thinking at all that I'd be posting it the first week of Lent. Or on the feast of St. Theophanes the Confessor (Constantinople, 8th c.). Originally the monastery in this story was dedicated to St. Theophan the Recluse (Russia, 19th c.), but then I saw who was commemorated today and decided it was a sign of something.

The story itself is based on a couple of dreams I had before becoming Orthodox. As far as I know, dreams don't have that much importance in Orthodoxy, so I take them with a grain of salt. Doesn't mean I'm not perfectly willing to use them for a work of fiction.

It's been three years since my Chrismation, but I have yet to actually stay at a monastery overnight. I did ask on r/OrthodoxChristianity how plausible some aspects would be, but for all I know virtually everything that happens here could never happen at a real monastery. Well, that's why it's fiction.

 

THE ACCUSER

Even in the quiet of a monastery, Maria couldn't get to sleep. Joyce was fast asleep in the other bed, as were all the other pilgrims staying the night in other rooms. The icons on the wall stared in silent darkness—the Lord with his open book, the Mother of God with her child, and various Orthodox saints surrounding them. Maria couldn't figure out what was keeping her up. She wasn't anxious, or panicky, had no particular worries at the moment. Yet here she was, awake at 12:30 after only a few hours, and she felt as if she'd been asleep a full eight.

She got up. She had read before that it was a bad idea to force yourself to sleep, and that it could help to leave the bedroom. So she put on a dress, tied her shoes, and slipped out. On the off chance she ran into any monks, they wouldn't want see her in her nightgown.

The common room at the bottom of the stairs still had its lights on. She sat down on the couch. There were only three books on the coffee table, and they were all books she'd read before—one Dostoyevsky and two Kallistos Ware. Maria figured if she were going to be up all night, she at least deserved something new to read, and she'd forgotten to bring any books of her own. The St. Theophanes the Confessor Monastery had a beautiful library full of out-of-print and hard-to-find books on Orthodoxy, and Maria had spent most of her free time that day perusing its shelves. And though she didn't exactly have a monastic calling, she did wish she could stay longer than a day so she could browse even more. But it would probably be closed this time of night.

Or would it?

Sure, the monks wouldn't want to worry about someone poking through their rare books after hours, and some of those books looked pretty valuable. But surely it wouldn't hurt anybody to roam around the monastery grounds for a little while, and check if the library was open. It would do her good to get her blood pumping. And if anyone else happened to be awake, and asked what she was doing, she could just tell the truth: she couldn't sleep.

The door to the guest house was unlocked. Maria stepped down the front steps onto the gravel. Only a few lamps provided any light. She didn't see another soul.

She walked across the courtyard through a cool wind. The spire of the Katholikon—the central church of the monastery—shot toward the stars as the moon cast its watchful glow. There was a strange calm over the monastery grounds… Yet at the same time, Maria got an eerie feeling when she looked into the deep black shadows cast by the trees.

The St. Theophanes library was part of the main monastery building, but at a distance from the monks' quarters and working areas. It had its own entrance, and as it turned out, the door was unlocked. Maria looked for a sign that said "Closed" or "Off Limits," but couldn't find one. And looking through the window within the door, she found the lights were on.

Maria stepped in and climbed the short stairwell. The library was small, but well-kept, with comfortable chairs here and there, some polished study tables, and hand-painted icons on the walls. It was the perfect place to pass the time.

Yet that weird eerie feeling hadn't gone away.

Well, it was just a feeling.

Earlier that day, Maria had found an interesting-looking book on Holy Confession, but hadn't gotten around to looking at it. Instead she had flipped through a biography of St. Maria of Paris and a collection of writings on the Transfiguration. She plucked the book on Confession off the shelf and took it to one of the chairs.

As soon as she sat down, that eerie feeling came back, even stronger than before. There were so many shadows in here. The light was on, but the dark was all she saw. She got up and flipped another switch. Now she could see everything, and there was nothing else here. Satisfied, she dropped back into the chair.

Maria had hoped for some useful advice about Confession. Sometimes she couldn't tell if she was confessing too much or too little, and sometimes unpleasant regrets crept up when she didn't expect it. People she'd hurt, people who'd hurt her. But when she read, she couldn't concentrate through how fast her heart was beating. Something raised the hairs on the back of her neck. There was nobody here with her. Yet why did she feel like she wasn't alone?

Sweat began to trickle down her forehead. She knew she had nothing to be afraid of, but no matter how slowly she breathed, she couldn't calm down. She wanted to run, but where could she go? Whatever it was, she could tell it would follow.

That presence…

It was somewhere behind her.

Slowly, steadily, Maria rose to her feet. Somehow that corner behind the chair seemed to have cloaked itself in shadow. Yet it wasn't even so much shadow—the overhead light was shining directly at it—nor even quite darkness. It seemed more like nothing—a creeping void that threatened to engulf the whole library. Her chest burned with panic.

Almost absent-mindedly, she whispered, "Wh-what do you want?"

The void grew, and she heard a whisper in reply, too quiet to make out. But along with it came a flash of memory. Of an encounter with a man, drunk and belligerent. Of the taste of beer and liquor in her mouth. Of her fist crashing into his jaw. Her big, hairy fist.

Maria shook her head. That never happened. At least, not to her. Sure, her arms had a little extra hair, but that was a man's fist she remembered. Whose was it?

She heard the whisper again. And she remembered a woman. Her face was a blur—there had been so many like her, they all ran together. The woman's payment was on the nightstand. She lay back on the motel room bed, and—

"That… That didn't happen." Or at least, it didn't happen to her. She'd sinned, certainly. She'd sinned sexually, no denying that. But with boyfriends. And definitely not for money. She'd become Orthodox since then. She'd repented. She'd confessed. She'd left that behind.

Still the whispers didn't stop. The sounds were indistinct, but they brought with them memory after memory of things she'd never done. Fight after fight. Woman after woman, one-night-stands and prostitutes alike. Lie after lie. They all felt so real. "Stop," she said. "That's not me. I didn't do any of that." She muttered a prayer—"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me"—again and again and again.

The whisper grew louder, and clearer. The darkness was whispering a name. "…Anthony…"

"What? Who's Anthony? Do I look like I'm Anthony? I'm Maria! Just leave me alone!"

Maria backed away, toward an icon of the Resurrection. She touched her finger to Jesus Christ's toe, whispering more and more Jesus Prayers as more and more false memories came to mind. Maria knew perfectly well who she was, and the things she'd done. Screaming matches with her mother, who'd raised her all alone. Rumors she'd helped spread about classmates, until one tried to take her own life. Sleeping with a guy in college when she was already with his best friend. Her sins were hers alone. The last thing she needed was to be burdened with somebody else's.

"Anthony…"

"For the last time, I'm not Anthony!" Maria made the sign of the cross. As soon as her fingers touched her left shoulder, something in her heart changed. Here she was in the presence of Evil, and it didn't even know who she was. A laugh burst from her mouth. "A-Are you really that stupid?" She crossed herself again. "Am I supposed to be afraid of you?" And once more. "You can't even get my name right! In the name of Jesus Christ, go away."

The shadow whispered, "Anthony…" one last time, then faded. Light returned to that corner of the room. Maria wiped her face, and found it damp with sweat. She felt as if she'd run a mile and then gone several rounds with a prize fighter. Whatever had just happened, she couldn't stay here. She put the book on Confession in the box for reshelving and headed for the stairs.

At the same time, a man in a black robe with a white beard was climbing up the steps. They both stopped in the middle of the stairwell. "I… I heard shouting," the older monk said, "and wanted to check and see if everything was okay."

"You're the Abbot," Maria said. "Abbot Timothy. Or Father Timothy. Or Igumen, or… Sorry, I only got baptized six months ago. I don't know all the right terms yet."

"Don't worry about it. The important thing is, are you all right?"

"I'm… I'm fine. I just… I couldn't sleep, so I thought I'd come in here and read for a while. Hope that wasn't a problem."

"Not at all," Father Timothy said. "Can you tell me what happened?"

"I just… had a panic attack, is all," Maria said. "But it's over now." She sidled around him as she descended the stairs. "I think I'm ready to go back to…" She stopped at the door. "No… I lied. Father… I think I just had a fight with a demon."

Father Timothy nodded. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"I think so."

She went back upstairs with Father Timothy. He took the same chair she'd sat in before. Maria sat in the chair opposite the coffee table from him. And she told him about her encounter with the shadow.

"…and it kept whispering a name. 'Anthony.' I don't suppose that means anything, does it?"

Father Timothy had listened attentively, thumbing his prayer rope. "I think it does. It just so happens, I'm Anthony. It was my name before I joined the monastery."

"So then…"

"Yes. That demonic attack you suffered was meant for me. I've dealt with that creature many, many times before. I was actually wondering where he'd been lately. But those were my sins you saw. I hope you can forgive me."

"No, it's fine. I mean, I can't imagine you're still getting in bar fights and paying for hookers."

Father Timothy laughed, and made the sign of the cross. "No, of course not. But I am sorry you had to confront my demon."

"Don't worry about it, Father. I just don't get it. Why me? Why would it think I was you?"

"I really couldn't say. Maybe the demon wasn't that bright. Or perhaps… Maria, can you tell me anything about your mother and father?"

"Why?"

"Just curious."

"Well, it's always just been me and my mom. Not much to talk about there. I never knew my father. Even my mom doesn't know much about him. She met him one night, he was gone the next day, and then I turned up. By then, she lost all his contact info. Is that important?"

Father Timothy sat in quiet contemplation for a moment, holding his prayer rope tight. He stroked his beard. "No. Not as much as I thought."

Maria stared at the abbot. It had to be relevant for something, but…

He couldn't be suggesting…

She pulled her eyes away. Never mind. Sure, it was possible, but the odds were just too high.

Maria rose from the chair. "I'm gonna head back to my room."

"Good. I hope you get plenty of sleep. Not just anyone can repel a demonic attack that powerful. Just don't let it go to your head."

"Right," she said. "I'll do my best. You gonna stay in here?"

"I think I will. Nothing like a little midnight reading. Besides, I want to be here if that demon shows up again."

"Thank you, Father." She laid out her hands in front of her. The Abbot made the sign of the cross, and placed his hand in her palm. She raised his hand and kissed it.

"God bless you, my child. And pray for me, a sinner."

Maria headed down the stairs, across the courtyard, back into the guest house. Joyce was still asleep, as were the other pilgrims staying the night in other rooms. Maria gave the icon of Christ a quick kiss and crossed herself. Next time she saw Mom, she'd have to ask if the name "Anthony" meant anything to her.

Maria crawled into bed, and slept deep and still, straight through morning prayers.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Weekly Story #35: Melusine and the Missing Shoe

I think this may be the longest weekly story yet. This one is a prequel to a work-in-progress I started last August, and had to set aside to focus on the short stories. Melusine is a major character in the WIP, as are a few others, albeit about ten years later.

This story draws to a large extent on my own experiences as a Catholic school eighth-grader, which were a much longer while ago. The opening scene, in particular, actually happened, minus the missing shoe and the water elemental. Sometime next week I plan on going back to the trail in question to see if I can find the original spot.

 

MELUSINE AND THE MISSING SHOE

Stuart's left shoe slipped off and dropped into the river. He held onto the ledge over rushing water, brown from the soil that last night's rainstorm had washed in. He'd taken just one step off the trail thinking he'd found a side path to explore, and slipped right down. If his other foot, the one that still had a shoe, hadn't landed directly on a sturdy root, he would be underwater by now. He was startled, but not afraid.

Bobby and Karen had been walking with him during the hike, and now were kneeling at the top of the ledge. "Holy crap, Stuart!" Bobby grabbed his wrist. "You all right?"

"I'm fine."

"Don't worry," Karen said, grabbing Stuart's wrist. "We'll get you up. It'll all be okay."

"Really, I'm fine."

They both seemed to have enough of a foothold to avoid slipping off. The two of them lifted Stuart off the root, over the ledge, back onto solid, if muddy, ground.

"Oh my God, that was so scary," Karen said. "Are you hurt?"

"I don't think so." Stuart checked himself, and only found some patches of mud on his clothes and the same Band-Aid that had been on his shin since Monday. He gazed over the ledge. He'd missed it so easily.

"You sure you're okay?" Bobby said. "You could have been killed." Some of their other classmates passed by, unaware that anything had happened.

"Yeah, I know," Stuart said. He was a little surprised at his feelings as well. All he felt was a strange calm. "But I wasn't." He was still out one shoe, though, and the other was caked with mud. "Man, and I just got these, too." He pulled off the surviving shoe, then peeled off his socks and stuffed them inside. No sense limping from uneven or soggy footwear. "Guess we might as well keep going."

"You're positive you're all right?" Bobby said.

"Positive. I just never felt like I was in any danger." Stuart started to point toward the ledge. "There was a—"

"Never mind," Karen said. "At least you didn't die. See ya." And she ran on ahead to rejoin her own friends. One of them, Helena, turned to greet her. For a moment Stuart hoped Helena might look his way, but no such luck.

"Well, whatever," Bobby said. "But seriously, how were you not scared out of your mind?"

"There was a root, and I got a foothold." Stuart pointed back like he'd originally intended. "And so—"

Down in the water, a girl's face was looking back up. Stuart only saw the dark eyes and soaked hair for a split second, then the face dropped below the surface. He shot to his feet. "Did you see that?"

"See what?" Bobby said.

"There's somebody down there!" Stuart stepped closer to the ledge.

Bobby grabbed him. "Dude, what the hell? You wanna fall again?"

Stuart took another look. He didn't hear a scream, or a shout, and certainly not a splash. "You didn't see her?"

"See who? Is somebody drowning?"

"N-no." She hadn't seemed to be struggling. In fact, she'd been holding steady against the current. And when she ducked underwater, it was less like she'd lost her strength, and more like she was trying to hide after being spotted. "She seemed fine. She was watching us."

"Watching us?" Bobby said. "In that water? You sure you saw somebody?"

Stuart supposed there was a chance it was an especially strange-looking fish.

"Maybe you're right," Stuart said. "Let's get going."

"Sure thing. Uh, how are you gonna explain losing your shoe?"

The last thing anybody needed was for Stuart's parents to raise a stink over his safety, especially when he was completely unharmed. Stuart shrugged elaborately. "Any ideas?"

* * *

The bus dropped the eighth grade class off at St. Anthony's Catholic School, where Stuart's mom was waiting in her car. In all, it had been a nice retreat. In addition to the hike, they had Mass at the picnic tables and broke into groups to do skits about various moral issues. Stuart's did one about sneaking into R-rated movies. And of course there were no classes whatsoever. It was a perfectly enjoyable day, even if he was no closer to getting Helena to notice him.

He stepped into the backseat, and his mom started the engine. "You're probably wondering why I'm barefoot," he said.

She glanced over her shoulder. "Actually, yeah. Something happen?"

"Well, we were on a hike, and my shoelaces got untied, so I'm just swinging my leg around, and I wind up flinging the shoe right off, right over a ledge, right into the river. All gone." Parts of that were true at least. The laces were undone, and he'd put off tying them. The shoe did fall into water. But the lie felt so flimsy, in spite of how much he and Bobby rehearsed it.

"Oh for the love of… Do you realize how much those shoes cost?"

"I'm sorry. The ledge was just closer than I thought, and I just don't know my own strength. I've still got those old Chucks—I can wear those."

"Those ratty old Chucks. Fine. Let them fall apart. If you want anything newer, you pay for it."

"Okay." Frankly, he preferred the Chuck Taylors anyway. They'd been his gym shoes all year, and were functional and comfortable. He wore the penny loafers more often anyway.

"So you've been barefoot all day?" his mother said.

"Half the day. It actually wasn't that bad. Except on the gravel at the parking lot."

His mother sighed. "As long as they're still in one piece. Just take a shower when you get home, in case you picked up a tick."

Mom drove over the rolling hills of their neighborhood, and across the creek that cut through it, and pulled into the driveway and parked behind the house. There was a patch of trees past the backyard, with the creek just beyond them. While Mom went to unlock the door, Stuart touched the asphalt with his toe, and winced at the heat. He put his socks back on and hopped out of the car.

He found his mom frozen at the doorstep. "What is it?" he said.

She was staring down at his left shoe. Totally dry, totally clean.

Stuart and his mom looked at each other. It hardly needed to be said, but Stuart let it out anyway: "How'd that get there?"

* * *

Eventually Dad came home, and Stuart told him about his day, and after dinner, showed him the shoe that had so strangely reappeared at the doorstep. Dad crooked his eyebrow. "You're saying that fell into the river, and somehow found its way all the way here, all on its own?"

"It got here somehow," Stuart said. "Maybe it's a miracle?"

"Hm. Maybe," Dad said. "St. Anthony is the patron saint of lost items."

"I think that's a different St. Anthony, dear," Mom said. "I just can't believe the teachers let him go barefoot so long."

"At least everything turned out all right in the end. Maybe next time tie them in a double-knot."

Stuart rolled his eyes. "But then I'll never be able to untie them."

"Of course you can. And it's better than accidentally kicking them off. Next time, who knows? It might fly into the back of a garbage truck."

"Right." Stuart went to his room. While he gathered up some X-Men comics to read, he glanced out the window, where he could see the red and orange in the sky behind the trees. It would have been nice to have some clue how the shoe came back to him. Sure, someone could have found it downstream, and maybe even cleaned it. But how did they find out where he lived?

The shadows were getting thicker and blacker among the trees, but he could still see the shimmer of the creek.

A figure emerged from the water. A woman—or, no, a girl, not much older than Stuart—with slick hair and a damp dress. She stood waist-deep, and turned her eyes toward his house.

Turned toward him.

Her eyes were solid and dark, no whites. Her hair looked less like hair, more like water gently flowing off her head. Even her skin seemed more like crystal than regular skin. She was watching him, and she knew he could see her. The girl raised her arm in a small wave. She was beckoning him. Inviting him. He couldn't take his eyes off her face.

It was the same face he had seen in the river.

Stuart shut the blinds. His heart pounded, much more harshly than when the only thing between him and death was a root. Strange women do not simply appear in creeks and invite young boys out into the dark. Should he tell Mom?

He peeked through the blinds. The girl was gone.

Or maybe she wasn't real at all.

Stuart sat on his bed and started reading some X-Men. The girl's face was the strangest and most captivating thing he'd ever seen. Even as far away as she was, he could tell she was beautiful. Possibly even more than Helena.

The next morning, after buttoning up his shirt and fastening his belt, he checked through the window again. No weird water girls this time.

There was, however, an old receipt stuck in the outside of the windowsill.

Stuart pulled it open, and caught the receipt just as it began to fly away in the wind. There was a message written on it, in lovingly crafted cursive:

My name is Melusine.
I'm glad you're all right.
I just wanted to make sure you got your shoe back.
Didn't mean to frighten you.
Meet me at the creek after sundown.

Stuart folded up the note and stuck it in his shirt pocket. So that was the person he had to thank. Melusine.

* * *

Second period was the boys' Gym class. Stuart met up with Bobby on the way to the locker room.

"So your mom buy our story?" Bobby asked.

"More or less," Stuart said, folding up the receipt and sticking it back in his pocket. He'd been rereading it yet again. "She was mad about the shoe, but… well…"

"What about it?"

"I'll show you. Just a sec." Stuart pushed open the locker room door, laid his bag on the bench, and pulled the zipper.

"What the hell?" Bobby said. "That's both of them."

"Yep." Stuart laid them aside and started unbuttoning his uniform shirt. He always wore a t-shirt underneath for Gym. "It was right at the back door when I got home. And…" And Bobby probably wouldn't believe a word about the weird water woman. "I dunno. Does the name Melusine mean anything to you?"

"Mell-you-scene?"

"Maybe it's Mellus-scene. But that's the name of the girl who returned it. Just wondering if you might know who she is."

Bobby shook his head. "Never heard of her. How'd she even know where to return it?"

"That's what I don't get," Stuart said. A girl like that could certainly have incredible powers he didn't begin to understand. On the other hand, she had been playing in the creek at sundown—something Stuart and his friends had done plenty of times before. "Maybe she lives in the neighborhood. Might have seen me wearing the shoes last weekend."

"But she would have had to be at the park, though," Bobby said. "Seems like a hell of a coincidence."

"I know, but…" Stuart tied the shoes on and rocked on his feet. "Y'know, these are pretty comfy. I guess Mom's right. Maybe it is time to get rid of those old Chucks."

* * *

Stuart swapped his loafers for the new shoes that evening, after dinner and after the stars began to appear. He'd waited at his bedroom window, watching the woods, thinking about Melusine's face. How gentle the curve of her cheek, how full her lips, what mystery hid within her dark eyes. Even when he saw Helena between classes, and even when he actually made eye contact with her during lunch, it was Melusine he thought about.

He saw Melusine's silhouette emerge from the water, and wasted no time running to the kitchen for a flashlight.

"Where are you off to?" Mom said as he put on the new shoes.

"Oh. There's… just… something going on at the creek. I thought I'd check it out. I'll be back in a little bit."

"But what's going on at—"

Stuart ran out and turned on his flashlight and dashed through the trees until the ground made a gentle dip. The light showed the water flowing past, and the girl standing in the middle of the creek, the hem of her skirt floating around her. Her skin wasn't just like crystal. Up close, she actually seemed to be made of water. She was still the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen.

"Y-You're Melusine?" Stuart said, his heart leaping at the sound of her name in his mouth.

"Yes I am. You even pronounced it right!" Melusine approached the creek bed. "You're wearing the shoes."

"Y-yeah, I appreciate it. B-but how?"

"How did I find it?" Melusine said. "Or how did I return it?"

"Both, I guess."

"Well, then…" Melusine moved through the water, somehow without moving her legs. As she rose up from the creek, and the hem of her skirt fell, it became clear that she didn't actually have legs. What she did have was a tail, itself seemingly made of liquid, and once her body was on dry land, her tail coiled up around her. "As you can probably tell, I'm not human."

Stuart couldn't say anything. All he could do was babble at the sight in front of him—the girl on top, the serpent's tail on the bottom. "Then what…?"

"I'm an Undine," Melusine said. "A water elemental. In essence, I am water, or at least, a personification of it. And I saw you at Audubon Park."

"Y-You…"

"I go there for peace and quiet sometimes. And yesterday, I happened to be there when you nearly fell in. I was prepared to catch you and wash you to safety, but then your friends pulled you up."

"Hm… Karen's not really so much a friend."

"Well, be that as it may, I did find your shoe."

"So… So how'd you get it back here?"

"A little alchemy. The right soils, the right metals. Once I was done, it told me where the shoe used to be. I wasn't expecting it to be right down the road from Mrs. Dale."

"Mrs. Dale? The piano teacher?" He passed by her piano-shaped sign every day on the way to and from school.

"I take lessons from her on Saturdays."

"You mean she—" Stuart hardly knew anyone more ordinary than Ms. Dale. "Someone like you?"

"She's a very open-minded woman. Plus…" Melusine shifted her weight, and the tail collapsed and splashed all around her. Left behind were two skinny, but solid, legs with bare feet. "I'm not usually wearing that to our lessons." She shifted her body again, and something like dye rippled over her skin, changing it to a tone that was pale, but more human. "I don't have to hide, necessarily."

Stuart couldn't stop staring into her eyes, which now had irises of aquatic green. "You're amazing."

Melusine started laughing. "Thanks. I never actually got your name."

"Oh. Uh, I guess you're right." He actually said "You're amazing" out loud? What was he thinking? "It's Stuart."

"Stuart. It's a pleasure to meet you, Stuart." Melusine sat down on the damp grass—not that she'd mind getting wet. "Can you stay and talk? I've only had a physical form a few years. I didn't have a childhood, and I don't know a lot of people my apparent age. And you seem nice, Stuart."

"Sure." Stuart took a seat beside her. "Anything you want, Melusine."

And they talked. He'd never hung out like this with a girl before, but Melusine never made him feel ill at ease. She was so eager for a conversation, and she seemed genuinely interested in whatever Stuart had to say, even when he was describing the X-Men storyline he'd been reading. Melusine, for her part, told her story, but Stuart wasn't sure he understood it, especially the part about the alchemist.

"An alchemist?" Stuart said. "Like, he can turn lead to gold?"

"That's part of it," Melusine said. "But it's also experimenting with the natural forces behind everything. Transmuting non-living matter into living. Perhaps even finding the secret to immortality. It's how I was given a physical form."

"But what were you before that?"

"I was just… water. I don't really know how to describe it. I just… existed."

Stuart tried to imagine just existing without a body, and the best he could imagine was just floating around in an empty space. "So… do you like being physical?" Stuart felt his cheeks burn—that sounded so stupid.

"I do. It's more limiting, but sometimes the sensations are so overwhelming, I can't imagine going without them ever again. And if I could become human…"

She looked pretty human to Stuart, at least right now. "Huh?"

"I told you, I'm not human. Just an imitation. I don't even have a soul. But if I marry a human, I can acquire a soul, and take a fully human form."

"If you… m-m-mar—"

"It's either that, or someone creates the Philosopher's Stone." Melusine tossed a pebble into the creek. "But both of those are such a longshot. No point worrying about it now."

"But if you could get married…"

"I have a little while to think about it," Melusine said. "I still have a lot to learn before I'll be—"

"Stuart!" His mother's voice rang out through the woods. "Where are you?"

Stuart shot to his feet and yelled back. "I'm at the creek!"

"Come back inside! It's too dark!"

Stuart groaned, then said to Melusine, "Look, I gotta go." And just when the conversation was getting good. "When can I see you again?"

"Well…" Melusine stroked her chin. "I have a piano recital tomorrow night, right over at Mrs. Dale's house. Starts at six."

"Oh yeah, I can make it. Sure thing."

"Great. It's been nice meeting you, Stuart. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Bye, Melusine." Stuart watched her wade back into the creek. When she reached the middle, she dissolved totally into liquid, dress and all, and joined together with the current. He turned his flashlight back on, and paced back toward his house. His mother was waiting by her car.

"There you are," she said. "What was so important you had to go back there?"

"Oh, nothing," Stuart said. "I just… There's…"

"You were in such a hurry, must have been a big deal."

"Well… Okay, so there's this new kid in the neighborhood." He supposed that was true enough. "Thought she'd want to hang out. You know she takes lessons from Mrs. Dale?"

"Aha." His mother walked him to the backdoor. "So she does, does she?"

"Huh?"

"Never mind."

* * *

Throughout that Friday school day, Melusine was the first thing on Stuart's mind. Everything he saw reminded him of her—the tropical fish mural in the entryway, the flowing dresses on some of the younger teachers, the snake in Mr. Caulder's classroom, the water fountains. During morning Mass, he prayed so intently that he could someday marry Melusine that he barely noticed when it was time for Communion.

He'd never felt so strongly about a girl before, even about Helena. He and Melusine were meant to be together. He just knew it.

Stuart stayed in his uniform after school, so he'd look nice for the recital, but put on the sneakers Melusine had reunited. He heated up some chicken nuggets in the fridge and kept his eye on the clock. As soon as five-thirty rolled around, he ran out the door, gathered some flowers out of the garden, and made a beeline straight for Mrs. Dale's house.

A young man about his age answered the door. "Can I help you?" He wore a black suit and had three small freckles in a line on his cheek.

"I'm, um, here for the recital."

"Right. Come in. I'm Cameron."

"Stuart." He shook Cameron's hand. "You another one of Mrs. Dale's students?"

"No, but a friend of mine is."

Stuart took a baby carrot off the vegetable platter. "Oh, same here. She's—"

"There she is! Melusine!"

And there she was, in her human guise, wearing a floral summer dress, with no hint that she might ever have had a snake's tail. A look of alarm spread on her face when she saw Cameron together with Stuart. She marched toward them.

"Stuart!" she said. "I, um, see you've met Cameron."

"Uh, yeah." Stuart's fingers tightened around his bundle of flowers. "So you two are friends?"

"Something like that," Melusine said. She turned her voice to a whisper. "Cameron is… You remember the alchemist I was telling you about?"

Cameron's eyes flashed in a glare.

"You're his son?"

"He is the alchemist."

Stuart stared at the boy with three freckles standing next to him. "You?"

"Mel," Cameron said, "how much did you tell him?"

"You're an alchemist?"

"My mother's the alchemist. I'm more of an apprentice. Melusine?"

"We can trust him," Melusine said. "All I've told him is that I'm a water elemental, and you're an alchemist. That's all."

"Is… is there a problem?" Stuart said.

"No, no…" Cameron rubbed his eyes. "I'm just… freaking out for no reason. Any friend of Melusine's a friend of mine. Now, about those flowers."

"Huh?" Stuart had nearly forgotten he was holding them. "They're…" He absent-mindedly held them forward, toward Melusine.

She sighed, and accepted them, and blushed. "Stuart… I…"

"They're from my mom's garden," Stuart muttered. "I hope you like them."

"They're lovely," Melusine said. "Let me just put them in a safe place. Thank you so much for coming, Stuart." She walked into another room, leaving Stuart in the corner with Cameron, who was unscrewing the lid from a Coke bottle.

"So you're really an alchemist," Stuart said.

"Right. I know I don't look like it, but…" He took a small flask from inside his coat and poured a drop into the Coke.

Stuart scanned the room. "What the hell? You're spiking it?"

"No. Just watch." Cameron pressed his finger on four points around the cup while muttering something in some ancient language. He then lifted and swirled the cup. In only a few seconds, the color of the Coke changed to a light pink. "Try it."

Cameron took an uneasy sip. "Lemonade. You turned Coke into lemonade."

"I'm also the one who first summoned Melusine out of the water. She's been like a sister to me ever since."

"Wow. Like a sister, huh?" Stuart sipped again from the first cup as Cameron transformed another cup of Coke into lemonade. "You know, when I first saw you, for a second I thought you might be her…"

Cameron swirled the second cup. "She doesn't have a boyfriend."

"She, um, told me if she ever got married…"

"Mother will never allow her."

Stuart took another look at Cameron. His hair seemed to cast a strange shade over his eyes. "She only tolerates this," Cameron said, gesturing toward the small crowd gathered for the recital, "because it doesn't risk turning Melusine human. Mother wants—needs her to stay an elemental."

"So… she's the controlling type, huh?" Stuart began to consider why Melusine didn't talk much about her home life.

"You have no idea. Plus from what Melusine's told me, all Mrs Dale knows is that Melusine's an Undine." Cameron dropped a hand on Stuart's shoulder. "Look, I'm saying this as someone who'd kinda like to be your friend. Keep your distance from Melusine. I don't know what Mother would do if she found out."

Stuart saw genuine fear in Cameron's eyes. "Am I in danger?"

"Not from me, and not from Melusine, but—Oh, I think they're starting."

Mrs. Dale stood on the opposite end of the living room and clapped her hands. Behind her was a baby grand piano, and to her side were her students—not just Melusine, but other children, from grade school to high school. Stuart and Cameron sat together in the back. Mrs. Dale introduced the program and the students. A pair of second-graders did a duet, a talented fourth grader ran through a Mozart rondo, and Melusine performed the entire Tempest sonata. Her music was as beautiful as the rest of her.

And now Stuart knew she wasn't just an elemental longing to become human. She was a prisoner, longing to break free.

After the recital, he and Cameron gathered with her on the back porch. "You were amazing," Stuart said.

Melusine sighed. "I'm just glad I don't have to play that thing again for a while. Um, Cameron, can I talk to Stuart alone for a minute?"

"Sure." Cameron went inside.

Stuart's heart ran a hundred-mile dash. This was the moment, he just knew it—this was when she'd return his profession of love, and they could start preparing for the future, whether Cameron's mother liked it or not.

"Listen, Stuart," Melusine said, and gazed over the backyard, and let out a weary sigh. "I'm flattered by the flowers and everything you've said. Really, I am. But… I don't know what kind of signals I gave out last night. This just isn't what I intended."

Stuart's racing heart fell into mud. "What do you mean?"

"Just this whole idea of… Look, we only just met last night. And now you're head over heels, and… and I'm just not ready to deal with that. I just wanted to make a new friend."

Then this was it—the "Let's be friends" speech. Last time he'd gotten this, it wasn't even from somebody he liked. It was from some girl in fourth grade who chased him around during recess, then suddenly sprang that on him. But hearing it from Melusine, after the feelings he'd been through today… "But if you get married…"

"Stuart, you're only, what, fourteen? Thirteen? And I've only had this form a few years. And again, we've only known each other a day. Neither of us can look that far in the future. Besides, if Cameron's mother finds out…"

"That's what this is really about, isn't it?" Stuart said. "Cameron's afraid of her, too. Well what's she gonna do to me? I'm only fourteen!"

"She's a powerful alchemist, and is the most petty and vindictive human being I've ever met. She would absolutely take a relationship as disloyalty and would punish both of us for it. So you're right, it is partly about her. I want to keep hanging out with you. I couldn't live with myself if anything happened to you because of me."

Stuart found an old question popping up again. "Am I in danger?"

"Not yet."

"But I love you."

"I don't know that you do," Melusine said. She glanced at the screen door, where Cameron was knocking on the glass. She beckoned him out, asking Stuart, "Aren't there any girls at school you like?"

Every word she said left a new crack in Stuart's heart, with only a black void within. "I mean, there was Helena. But—"

Melusine held up her hand, and listened to something Cameron whispered in her ear. "Damn, we don't have much time. Stuart, you said her name was Helena?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Let me see that." She took Cameron's cup and touched it on various strategic points. "Take a sip."

"What'd you turn it into?"

"I didn't change the drink," Melusine said. "Just what it does."

Stuart took a sip. If it wasn't Dr. Pepper, it sure tasted like it. As it passed through his throat, he realized what a terrible idea it was to take a drink from them with no questions asked. They both wanted him to back off. What if this was poison, or something to erase his memory? What if it meant he'd never see Mom, or Dad, or Bobby, or Helena—

Helena.

Her face appeared clear in his mind's eye—her brown eyes, her toothy grin, her ponytail. Only a few days ago she was the only thing he could think about. He'd been sharing a class with her since fifth grade, and only known Melusine what, twenty-two hours? And he'd already done more to express his feelings for this water elemental than an ordinary girl in his own class. Melusine was right. He didn't need to torture himself over her. Not when he had Helena to look forward to on Monday. "I should call Helena."

"Give it a shot," Melusine said. "I'll be rooting for you."

"Sure," Stuart said. "You guys let me know when you wanna hang out, okay?"

"I'll swim by when I do."

"Good meeting you," Cameron said. "And good luck."

"Thanks." Stuart strolled through the backyard toward the woods, and crossed past the neighbors backyards until he got to his house. It would be so simple to look up Helena's number, give her a call, ask her out to a movie. Heck, he'd already given Melusine flowers and told her he loved her. He could certainly just tell Helena he liked her.

Just as he reached his parents' property, he ran across two kids, a boy and a girl, standing by the creek. The girl's eyes met his. They seemed strangely cold for such a little girl. "Hello," she said.

"Hey," Stuart said. "You kids lost?"

"Oh, we're just checking on Melusine."

"Mother's worried about her," the boy said. "You go to her recital?"

Mother. The boy said it the same way as Cameron, with the solemnity of naming a dictator, and the loyalty of a person who served one.

"Who's Melusine?" Stuart said.

"Never mind," the girl said. "I'm sure she'll turn up."

Stuart made it to his backyard, and checked over his shoulder as he hopped onto the doorstep. The creepy twins were both gone without a trace. Wherever Melusine was, he hoped she was okay, and that whatever those two were planning, nobody was in any danger.

He opened the door, slipped out of his shoes, and swiped the cordless phone from the kitchen to take to his room.