(Gallery link here. Thank you so much to the Spring Collab crew for the invite and the amazing chat and company over the last couple of months. Hearts all around!)
Rain let out a sigh before setting a marble in the center of the kitchen floor. He watched with no surprise as the marble wobbled, then rolled eastward toward the gap beneath the fridge. His shoulders sagged, then hunched as warm arms encircled his waist from behind.
“I didn’t marry you for your level floors and right angles,” Juniper said, and Rain’s shoulders eased slightly at the warmth in her tone.
“Good thing,” he muttered, then sighed again.
“Need me to say it?” she asked. A kiss brushed against his shoulder blade. One of the kids crashed through the room and out into the chilly spring morning. He half-expected Juniper to rush out after her, but his wife’s embrace remained firm. When he nodded, he felt her smile against his bare back.
She launched into the reassuring speech they’d worked out together. “We’re fine. The kids are fine. The crops are fine, the farmhouse is fine, the bees and fish and trees are fine. We’re fine.”
Some days, the words lacked power, but not today. He let them wash over him like sunshine, and patted her hands where they rested over his stomach. “Right,” he said. “We’re fine.”
The Count in his hilltop mansion leads the vampires of Forgotten Hollow. So I am told every time I meet another of my kind, whether casually or otherwise, and I can only infer that my sire and I offer the Count some great disrespect by not presenting ourselves for his approval. Ordinarily, a vampire would do so when settling in a new nexus. It’s only polite.
However. Apuleius is not a vampire who bends the knee, and he cares little after all the long centuries for niceties. When the Count meets my sire, he will understand. Apuleius has seen the legions of Rome, the arrival of the barbarians, the rise and fall of knowledge, the darkness of plague, the shining glory when art and industry became once again important in the mortal world. I spent the first decade of my new life sitting at his feet and hearing his tales.
Our exile from our last nexus was…unfortunate. I am sorry, truly. But Apuleius seeks to be a father of many, and so we have come to a place where our kind is able to live freely. Yes, others were here before us. We plan no disruption of their ways, only the chance to live as we have chosen.
The girl has given herself to our side, not theirs. Will that be the feather on the scale that tips all of us into bloodshed? Perhaps. I am not concerned. Apuleius protects us. Who is this Count to think himself worthy of our time?
In “Rags to Riches with Patrice/the Carvers,” Patrice Carver is a nearly-senior owner of a flower shop and plant nursery. She’s a mother of one (the adorable Eddie), and she has *never* been lucky in love. She’s spent most of her life yearning after her (now married) best friend Akira, to the extent that her only intimate relationship has been with Diego, Eddie’s father.
Diego’s a slightly older art critic who left San Myshuno in middle age to come live with Patrice and Eddie in Oasis Springs. In doing so, he sold his huge city apartment and committed fully to his son and his ex, even renovating their house and buying Patrice her flower shop.
It hasn’t been easy, learning how to depend on someone.
Wheels just keep spinning around, don’t they? Did you and Dad ever feel like things were slipping away and then somehow coming around again? I’ve given these men too many years of my life, but here come the little hopes, the tiny little hopes that never survive reality.
He’s just more humble these days. I can surprise him. He’s gentler. He’s not kind. I don’t think he’ll ever be kind. But he loves Eddie and he walked away from a date the other night to come talk to me. To be surprised by me.
I don’t know. I’ve got too much to do for all this nonsense. But wheels just keep spinning, that’s all. I probably shouldn’t trust one more time.
Everything happens so quickly. Dreams and crushes turn into dates and disappointments. Eventually you pick someone. He picks you. He makes you laugh just often enough, and your heart flutters at how his grin tilts higher on one side than the other. It’s easier to be together than apart, at least most of the time. The bed feels empty without him. The room is too quiet when he’s gone.
You commit. You dig deep. Marriage isn’t easy, but it’s the bedrock beneath your life. Just when you decide to move to the city, to apprentice in a restaurant kitchen, to just do it, his mother passes and leaves you her house. Her suburban, yellow, traditional, uninspiring, anchor of a house.
Of course you accept it. And of course you move in, because it’s too hard to tell your husband that it isn’t the house you dislike, it’s the weight of it, the tangible forever he seems far too happy to embrace. Your first — and only — children are twins. Where better to raise them than where your husband was raised?
Memories blur. Trick-or-treating and Winterfest decorations fade into pool visits and school plays and parades. You take annual Granite Falls vacations, and every time the taxi pulls up to the house, you’re confused for a moment: is this you? Is this where you’ve decided to be?
Your daughter gets caught shoplifting. Your son won’t tell you why he’s picked on at school, though you’re fairly sure you know. You don’t talk about it, because the Cross family doesn’t really talk, you just move forward, step by step, year by year. Time passes. You watch too much TV and use the treadmill as a clothes hanger.
Your kids leave home as soon as the ink on their diplomas dries. When they drive toward San Myshuno in a car filled with moving boxes, you wave longer than they do. Your husband waits a month more than necessary to tell you he’s met someone; it’s not like you didn’t know. She’s a painter, like your husband. He’ll move her into the yellow house — it’s his childhood home, after all.
You don’t ask your children to hate their father; you’re not like that. You don’t hate him either. You know full well that the anchor, the weight, was clamped to his ankles as inescapably as it was to yours. Your discussions are rational and calm. You just want it all to be done.
You don’t pack much, though your husband offers you anything you want. His guilt leads to a decent settlement, a quick resolution. You let his next wife deal with the curios and memories and dusty ceramic chickens. You just get out and move on.
You don’t expect your life to change when you get up in the morning. You clean what neeeds cleaning, you shave, you dress, you leave behind your sad, dingy one-room apartment and walk through a drizzly grey morning to your sad, dingy office. You? Me. Call me Morty.
Willow Creek wasn’t a fancy town, not anymore. It had fancy parts, but a mook like me didn’t have much cause to be there. Instead, I worked in a three-story walk-up with a barber shop on the first floor and a bookie on the second. My window looked out over shipping containers and cranes, and Nina — my old secretary Nina — always complained about the smell.
Not that Nina was complaining anymore. Last week, she ran off with a piano player from San Myshuno. She left a napkin with “sorry,” scribbled on it, which I figured I deserved. Now, alone, I opened the top-most drawer of her little desk on a whim. A few lipsticks rattled around, shades she never wore. A few strands of flame-red hair remained wrapped around a tortoise-shell comb under some papers. I touched the hair, and for a moment, I even missed her.
She’d been right to go, though it stung. She’d asked, “You and me, are we ever gonna make it official?” Nina wasn’t shy, which is one of the reasons I’d hired her in the first place. A straight-shooter, easy to look at, easy to like. I hope the piano player treated her good. Better than I did, at least.
I sagged into my chair after flicking my hat onto its hook. It hung on the tip for one precarious second before flopping to the floor. Figured. The files scattered on my desk held nothing but sad stories: bad marriages, bad investments, bad choices. Don’t be a private investigator if you want to see the good side of people. Lucky me, I’d never believed in people in the first place.
I tossed back a couple of shots of juice before rolling up my sleeves and getting to work. One inheritance case was particularly thorny — greedy second wife, greedy first wife, greedy kids, greedy lawyer — and I was deep into it when a gentle knock sounded on the office door.
“Get that, sweetheart? It’s what I pay you for.” I snapped the words before remembering that Nina was snuggled off in the city somewhere, happy and well rid of me. I sighed and barked, “Come in,” though the last thing I wanted to do today was coddle a new client.
A woman’s words cut through the fog in my brain like a searchlight. She had a voice made of money, the kind that only comes from fancy finishing schools and good breeding. I jerked my head up and saw a lady all in red, black-haired and pale-skinned, with vivid eyes and curves like a mountain road. “You’re Mr. Goth? I’m …call me Bella.”
Bellissima, at least, the most bellissima I’d ever seen. I snapped my gaping mouth shut and stood. “Morty Goth, that’s right. Morty. Call me Morty.” She waited patiently through my stammering, as a woman who looked like her probably had to do all day long. When she sat, I sat. When she spoke again, I listened.
“I’m sorry to intrude like this without phoning ahead. But I have a problem.” I usually would have made some sort of twirl with my hand, a ‘keep talking’ gesture, but not for this lady. To her I said, “Yeah?” dopey as they get. My hand itched to stash the bottle of juice on my desk out of sight. That, or drink it down.
“There’s a man.” She sighed. Her hands clasped together in her lap. No rings. “He and I used to keep company once upon a time. But we parted ways, or at least I did. He didn’t seem to get the message.” She gazed just past me to the rain-streaked window and its wan light. “Now I see him everywhere. I’m afraid.”
“He just shows up?” I didn’t say what I was thinking, that it’d be a hard message to take, a dame like this saying goodbye. “What does he do?”
Her perfect nose scrunched briefly as she answered. “He begs. And then he gets angry. And then he tells me I’ll be sorry.” She looked me in the eye. “I believe him, Mr. Goth. He’s …reckless.” A faint hint of red tinged her pale cheeks. “I suppose that’s what I liked in the first place.”
Noted. “He ever raise a hand to you?”
“No, not once,” she said immediately. “But…if he does, someday soon, I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s very angry.”
“And you want, what? I can tell him to back off for you, if you want. In a way he’ll hear.” I wasn’t a huge man, but I’d been in this job for a good many years, and in the army as an angry young man. I knew my way around a punch. “I can probably dig up some dirt on him that’ll make him want to leave town.”
Her big blue eyes opened a fraction more widely. “You’re that certain he has something to hide?”
“He’s human, isn’t he?” My itching hand made its choice, reaching for the bottle of juice. “How about it, Miss Bella? You want me to make him go away?” Her gaze tracked my movements as I put the bottle back into a drawer.
“I would,” she said. “Make him go away, Morty. Really go away. And I’ll be ever so grateful if you do.”