Abruzzi’s Visit

With a practiced smile, Clara opened the door for the man to whom her husband owed his life. “Mr. Abruzzi! So nice of you to drop by.”

It wasn’t nice, which Mr. Abruzzi knew: surprise visits to his beneficiaries were how he ensured his investments were behaving. A stone-faced male aide followed in Mr. Abruzzi’s wake.

Abruzzi shed his coat; the aide handed it to Clara. Her hands shook as she hung it. She hoped they hadn’t noticed.

“You have a lovely home, Mrs. Leoni.” Abruzzi’s gaze swept the chandelier, the antique sideboard, and the matched wingback chairs, all kept obsessively clean. Clara often imagined how their next home might look: a tiny loft in France or Brazil, with mismatched and often dusty furniture, far more homelike than this gracious apartment.

“Thank you,” she demurred. She poured his favorite wine from a bottle on the sideboard. “Marco should be home at any moment.”

“Normally he’s returned by now.”

Did the watchful aide notice her tremor as Clara handed Abruzzi the glass? “He’s heading up a new project. Longer hours.”

Complimenti.” Abruzzi lifted his glass in a brief toast. “And his legs continue to perform?”

“The machinery is incredible,” Clara admitted.

It had seemed miraculous at the time: a philanthropist who’d heard about Marco’s accident and wanted to help them pay for the cutting-edge prosthetic legs. The payment plan was simple, he promised, the interest nominal – this isn’t Sicily, after all, he said with a wink.

Yet somehow the Leonis owed still more money, no matter how hard Marco worked, how clean their house was, how much Clara flattered Abruzzi on his visits. It took them months to admit Abruzzi owned them, and months more to plan their escape. Clara could only hope the pieces would come together soon.

“I’m curious about this new project.” Abruzzi lowered himself into one of the wingback chairs. “Such a…promising venture for the two of you.”

“It is.” She sat in the window seat, letting her skirt swing around her legs as she crossed her ankles. They’d learned over the course of Abruzzi’s visits that he preferred her in skirts.

She entertained another brief daydream of the future home, the dusty, cramped, wonderful one. In this home, she wore sweats.

What was keeping him?

The street two stories below was packed with commuters. Bicycles whirred past, dodging cars and pedestrians. Clara often wondered if anyone passing by had been a beneficiary of Mr. Abruzzi; if they were subjected to stressful visits and left sleepless for nights afterward, wondering if the expensive procedures Abruzzi had funded would ever be paid off – and what would happen if they weren’t.

“Here he comes.” She stood a little too quickly, but she’d spotted Marco’s distinct silver bicycle, his glossy dark hair catching the golden-hour sun.

She greeted him at the door with a warning smile and the customary kiss. He knew the look; he touched Clara’s cheek reassuringly as he passed her.

“Mr. Abruzzi!” All faux machismo, he shook Abruzzi’s hand roughly and slapped him on the shoulder. They’d learned Abruzzi responded well to such displays. “What can we do for you today?”

“Oh, I just stopped into say hello. I understand you have a new project at work.”

“Yes, it’s a new cyber-security platform – very exciting stuff.” He looked apologetic. “But Clara and I have an engagement tonight…”

“Of course!” Abruzzi gripped Marco’s shoulder. “I won’t keep you any longer. I simply wanted to check in. Josef!”

The aide strode past them to open the door for Abruzzi. Clara handed him his coat and forced a smile as he kissed both her cheeks for a little too long.

Buona notte,” he said, smiling thinly.

Once the door was safely shut, she scrubbed her cheeks with her skirt hem. “Will this new project keep you late often? You know I hate having to entertain him alone.”

“You’ll never have to entertain him again.” Marco drew two envelopes from his backpack. “This is why I was late: visas. Brazil.”

“You got them?” she whispered. “I thought it would take weeks!”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you, but I couldn’t risk Abruzzi noticing anything. We can leave tomorrow.”

“What about your work?”

“They’re happy to have me work remotely.”

“And we can really leave tomorrow?” she breathed.

“Really. Abruzzi won’t be able to touch us.”

She saw herself in sweats, breathing tropical air, unwashed dishes in the sink and laundry unfolded on the couch. “Then you’d better help me pack.”

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A Fire Burns Without Regret

“3…2…1…Happy New Year!”

Squeezed among the crowd on my building’s roof, I find myself suddenly alone as the people around me twist away to make out with their partners.

I try to keep my attention on the fireworks overhead. The colossal elementals spin and dance in the sky over the Space Needle, their rippling arms throwing sparks of red and gold. Occasionally one soars close to us, sticking out its white-hot tongue before rocketing skyward to explode in a shower of light.

Elementals this size come from volcanos. I always wonder if these performances make them sad, if they regret having to die over a strange city, but these seem to be having a great time.

So do the people around me.

“Hey.”

The bottom falls out of my stomach. It’s Tom, his smile as dazzling as the fireworks. My roommate invited him – she knows I like him, and she’s pretty sure he likes me, and she was probably hoping the midnight revelry would inspire us. She doesn’t know I’ve typed and deleted a dozen emails to him, trying and never managing to tell him how I feel.

“Hey.” I’m pretty sure I pull off sounding cool and collected. “Happy New Year.”

“This show is amazing, huh?” He offers me a cigarette.

I’ve accepted it and instinctively pulled out my old silver lighter before I remember. “Can I borrow your light?”

He looked down at the one in my hand and his smile turns wistful. “Saving your old one?”

I shrug, trying to look nonchalant. “She’s old.”

“She came from your grandfather, right?”

The lighter had been a wedding gift from my grandmother to my grandfather, engraved with their initials and their anniversary. It’s all I have left of either of them, but by the time it had come to me, more than half the life of the elemental within had been used up. Over the last few months, she’s been changing – weakening.

I hold it out on my palm and we both watch the polished surface catch the colors. “She’s dying,” I say, feeling foolish. Who gets sentimental over the fire in their lighter? It’s not like I’m weeping for the fireworks.

But Tom just gives that gentle smile. The fireworks momentarily light his face blue and I remember how close I came to asking him to dance at the jazz club near Christmas. Yet another regret of the ended year.

His finger traces the engraving. It’s the first time we’ve been this near, this close. So close. “Remember that time she got us out of that creepy basement senior year?” he asks, chuckling.

“God, that was awful. I remember using her to help Ophelia find her ring.”

“She’s been a good little flame.”

I chew on the inside of my lip, determined not to cry. “You don’t think it’s silly to get emotional over a lighter?”

“Of course not. They’re living beings, and that one’s been with your family a long time.” He closes my fingers around the lighter. “I’m going to miss her, too. She came on so many of our misadventures.”

“I’ll make sure her final year is just as adventurous.”

I light the cigarette. The elemental’s feathery arms wrap around the paper, just like she’s done since I snuck my first cigarette in ninth grade, but I can see its tiny face is turned upward, gazing with white-hot eyes at its enormous cousins dancing overhead.

“Can you see that?” I ask it. The flame wobbles in excitement.

“Need a better look?” Feeling somewhat silly, I hold the lighter up. Tom watches it rise. The little flame glows brighter and the wisps stretch skyward. Then, with a faint squeal and a flash of white, the fire launches itself out of the lighter. It circles Tom’s head, illuminating his smile, before it shoots upward like a child’s lost balloon. It spirals closer to a huge gold sparkler, which beams and spreads its many-limbed arms wide to greet it.

There is a boom and a shower of bright sparks, and then both are gone.

It takes me a moment to realize that the silver case in my hand is an empty shell now. It takes me another moment to realize she probably lived longer than I will, and she went out gloriously.

I might go out gloriously, too, but what’s the point of waiting that long?

I kiss Tom, and the response is a new kind of magic and light.

Costume Courage

Alexis enters the living room and my tea stops halfway to my lips. “What exactly is your costume?”

She’s wearing an artfully shredded polka-dot jumpsuit and a long, scarlet wig. Her face is plastered with red and white clown makeup and the whole ensemble is smeared with fake blood.

She spreads her arms. “I’m sexy Pennywise!”

“Sexy…okay.” I take several swallows of tea. “There is a lot to unpack here. Give me a minute.”

“Hey, at least I have a costume.”

“I told you, I’m sick. I’m not going to the party.”

“You don’t look sick.”

“Well then, I must be okay.”

“Sarah!”

“It’s fine!” I rearrange my blanket over my lap. “This way someone can stay and give out candy.”

Alexis pouts – or at least that’s the expression I assume she’s making under the clown makeup. She’s right: I’m not really sick, but it’s the only excuse Alexis and our roommates will accept for skipping a party. I was sick, though, which is part of the reason I don’t have a costume. The other part is that I just didn’t plan one. Nothing sounded right, and everything in the stores was just too: too sexy, too gory, too predictable, too gauche.

“Well, if you feel better, you can still borrow my cat ears.” Alexis says. Our other roommates meet her by the front door. Mel is in witch’s robes, complete with impressive Victorian boots; Kate is in 90s grunge gear.

“I’ll be fine.” I toast them with my glass. “Take pics for me?”

Alexis gives me a bloody thumbs-up and they whisk out the door. I settle in on the couch. Even the cat costume didn’t feel right, though I never could articulate why: it would give me an excuse to wear my favorite little black dress, the one that’s just a little too short, and flats with cat faces on them, shoes that my workplace doesn’t tolerate.

Still, a night in with tea and a classic Halloween flick just sounded easier.

The first trick-or-treaters arrive not too long after. It’s a horde of boys in assorted ninja, military, and vampire costumes. They grab candy from the bucket and hurtle away without saying thank-you. I roll my eyes and prepare for it to be that kind of Halloween.

I curl back up in my blanket. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Hocus Pocus. I know it by heart, but that just means I don’t mind being interrupted.

It also means I’m a tiny bit bored.

The doorbell rings again. I answer it and find a trio of middle-school girls: a Jedi, a Ghostbuster, and a Tinkerbell.

Fourth grade. Mom is fitting white shoulder pads over my red turtleneck. My brother watches in horror. “You can’t be the Red Ranger!” he says. “He’s a boy!”

“Trick or treat!” They hold out pillowcases. The Ghostbuster wields a handmade proton pack; the Tinkerbell has glittery green eyeshadow that would impress RuPaul. They’re all beaming.

Seventh grade. My friend Derek helped me build my proton pack. Our jumpsuits look so believable, I’m ready to go downtown and fight Gozer. Mom is confused. “A Ghostbuster? Don’t you want to wear something more…flattering? I thought you wanted to be a Spice Girl!”

“Wow, you all look great!” I drop candy into their pillowcases. “Did you make your costumes yourselves?”

“I did,” the Ghostbuster says shyly.

“I did my own makeup!” Tinkerbell blinks rapidly at me, shedding green glitter.

Eighth grade. My friends are going as the Spice Girls. I’ve finally convinced my parents to let me go as Ginger Spice, but Mom frowns through our group pictures. “All that makeup is going to give people the wrong idea.”

“You look great! Have fun!”

“Thank you!” they chorus. Tinkerbell twirls as they make their exit, giggling.

When I return to the couch, a text is waiting for me: a photo of Alexis and the others making silly faces in the back of their Lyft. Therapy-provoking costume aside, she’s obviously having a great time.

I don’t even have to look at the TV to know what part of the movie I’ve reached. I mouth along as Thackery explains the witches to the kids. “How bad could it be?” Max says.

Alexis sends a second text: a cat emoji with heart eyes.

“Okay, fine,” I tell my phone, and turn off the TV. My cat costume – especially those shoes – is actually pretty cute. I might even send my mom a photo.

Mama Said

Julie hadn’t minded working late until autumn began. As long as she’d arrived home in the daylight, there was nothing to worry about in the walk from her car to the front door. Now that the sun was setting earlier, though, she arrived well after dark, and Mama always said to hustle inside on autumn nights after dark.

She’d never really believed it, just like she’d never really believed in the monster under the bed, but there were still nights when she had to get up during the witching hour and you can be sure she pulled her feet up into bed real quick, and pulled the covers over her head, too. Just in case.

Julie drove slowly down the driveway, ignoring what may or may not have been eyes gleaming from the fields. At the end of the drive, she gathered her bag and jacket, turned off the car, got her house key ready, and marched at a near jog to her front door. Something rustled in the grass, but she didn’t look. Mama always said not to look.

She closed and locked the door swiftly behind her. Inside, all was normal – in fact, better than normal: Todd had gotten the kids to bed and was washing dishes. A game show was on, and all the curtains were drawn.

“Hi, sweetie,” she called, hanging her jacket in the hallway.

“Hey,” he called back. “You just missed it – this guy only had one letter left and he blew it.”

She kissed him on the cheek. “What was the answer?”

“Eh, I forgot already.”

Julie did a double take at the contents of the sink. “Did they eat any of their vegetables?”

“Aiden did. Andrew threw a fit, though.”

One set of blinds in the living room had been left open. Julie tugged them closed, trying to avoid looking beyond the warm reflection of her living room into the dark Georgia night.

“The cat is in, right?”

“Oh, shoot – sorry, I was trying to get Andrew to bed –”

“Todd, it’s after dark!”

“I know, sweetie, I’m so sorry – I’ll go out and help you look –”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” She went to the pantry and pulled out Magnolia’s bag of treats. “She’ll come running for these – ain’t no need for anyone to go outside.”

Though she could practically hear Mama’s ghost yelling at her not to do it, Julie unlocked the back door and opened it just wide enough to stick her arm through and rattle the bag. She tried to ignore Todd standing just behind her – he was probably trying to be comforting, but having her escape route blocked just made her more nervous.

The fields whispered in the night breeze; the dark forest beyond was only a jagged line below which there were no stars. Aiden had seen the ghost of a soldier walking there last spring; Todd had chalked it up to too much TV, but Julie believed him. She believed, like her mama before her, that every Southerner had seen a ghost at least once, it was just a question of how willing they were to admit it.

“Here, Magnolia…” Her halfhearted cry could barely be heard beyond the porch. Luckily, Magnolia heard the rattle of her favorite treats: she leapt onto the porch railing, practically giving Julie a heart attack, and trotted inside, meowing.

Julie stepped back, already breathing a sigh of relief that the door would soon be closed and the night shut out, when she saw eyes in the grass.

She froze, locked between curiosity and dread, staring out at the glowing eyes.

“What is it?” Todd whispered. He was much taller than her; he could easily see what had caught her attention. “Coyote?”

“Sure.” Julie backed away slowly, edging Todd back with her. The eyes had drawn closer. Julie closed the door and threw the deadbolt.

“It was just a coyote, right?” Todd’s eyes kept shifting to the blinds, as if he wanted to look outside but knew better.

“Ain’t it always just a coyote?” Julie rubbed the back of her neck; her heart was still racing. “I’m going to call the Parks, make sure their cats aren’t out.”

“Yeah.” Todd still looked distracted. She wondered if he would try to go scare it off with the shotgun, or if his mama had told him, like Julie’s had told her, that these things were always better off left alone. “Maybe I should call the Wrights. Just in case.”

“Yeah – just in case.”

Neurotransmitting

They almost saw me during the reception. We were dancing. I smiled wrong; I couldn’t remember the right smile, so I displayed a fake, scrounged from clouded memories of expressions. I’m empty where emotions were, so I impersonate. Sometimes I even wish they would notice.

The Monster Hunters’ Daughter

Bee’s final memory of her parents was of them silhouetted in the cracked doorframe, Dad standing, Mom kneeling and holding Bee’s hands. In the dim room behind her waited the family Bee was going to live with: Aunt Val, Uncle Greg, and Grandma Margaret. None of them had greeted her – Uncle Greg was watching news and Aunt Val was knitting. At least Grandma Margaret smiled a little, though she didn’t seem to be smiling at anything in particular.

Mom whispered her last words to Bee: “Don’t trust them. We’ll come for you.”

Then Bee was alone, staring at the people who Mom had said were family but who stared back at her with haughtiness that didn’t feel like family. Besides, who could you trust if not family?

But she still trusted Mom, so Bee waited for the day her parents would come back for her, like they promised. Mom and Dad were treasure hunters, and no matter what Aunt Val and Uncle Greg said, Bee never doubted her parents’ love: she’d seen the kinds of dangerous artifacts they recovered. They refused to take her on their expeditions, though. “Not ’til you’re 16,” Mom always said, usually over the top of a sealed and warded crate she and Dad were hauling.

Her aunt and uncle didn’t believe Bee’s stories – they supposed Bee’s parents just wanted to travel the world without their child. This attitude did not result in them showing Bee anything resembling love, though.

So Bee turned 16 uneventfully. Her only card was from Grandma Margaret, who wrote “Happy Birthday Beatrice” in shaky cursive. Her parents didn’t send anything, not even a message in Mom’s mirror-journal. Her notations of their finds – “Tier-4 cryptid remains, CD ~250/260” – appeared in Bee’s copy of the journal. It told Bee they were still alive, and Bee could tell from the frequency of notes that they were not only alive, but they’d found something huge.

Huge enough to make them forget her birthday, apparently.

She stayed up late reading the journal, hoping for a last-minute birthday message. They’d found three more high-level cryptids and encountered a Remnant, which fled when it saw them. Bee hoped they’d find another, maybe speak to it.

Finally, more lines appeared. Her heart leapt, but the words were boring – just cataloging relics. Still, Bee watched, just to know Mom was there. Then:

2nd Con relic, steel-?? alloy, Abyssal? CD ~18

Bee waited for the rest to appear. The Second Conjunction had been over a thousand years ago and its artifacts were incredibly rare, usually grouped where the Conjunction had flared strongest: France’s northern coast. The magic in the artifacts soured and strengthened over time – was that why Mom stopped writing? Had the artifact hurt her somehow?

She waited: three breaths, four. The date remained incomplete. Something had definitely happened to them.

Bee didn’t hesitate. She stuffed her backpack with water bottles, her dig tools, and food from the kitchen. Only when turned to leave did she realize Grandma Margaret was sitting at the table, alone in the dark kitchen.

“Where you headin’, kiddo?”

Bee stood straighter. “I’m going to find my parents.”

“What for?”

“They’re in trouble! They didn’t wish me a happy birthday, which – fine, whatever – but Mom’s been writing about cryptids, big ones, and then her sentence ended half-finished and I have to go!

Margaret flicked on the lights. She was squinting up at Bee. “What tier cryptids?”

How did she know about the tiers? “Four and five. And they found some…old artifacts.”

“How old?”

“Second Conjunction.”

“Hmm. All this is in that journal of hers?”

Bee nodded, stupefied.

“Let me see.”

Bee hesitantly handed over the journal. Margaret flipped through the pages, frowning, occasionally muttering “reckless” and “fool girl.”

“Well,” she said finally, handing the journal back, “that’s a Wholenuther problem.”

Something about the inflection confused Bee. Margaret smirked at her expression. “I don’t recommend him often,” she said. “He’s craftier than the other Remnants your folks deal with. But he’s good at what he does – when you’ve got a real complicated problem, well, that’s a whole ‘nother thing.”

“He calls himself Wholenuther?”

“And his price is puzzles. Get him something to wear his brain out on, he’ll help find your parents.”

“How do you know – ”

“Who do you think gave your mom that journal?” Grandma tossed her her sweatshirt. “Now get movin’ – Wholenuther likes flowing water, so start at the creek.”

“And Bee,” she called as Bee reached for the doorknob, “happy birthday.”

Transcript of a Tape Found Near The Depot, 09-01-35

It used to rain a lot out here. Not as much as some places, but enough that we kinda earned a reputation for it. They would joke that summer didn’t officially start until the Fourth of July because before then it would be in the 60s and raining.

The 60s sound downright frigid now. And rain…let’s see…it rained last December. Early in the month sometime. It’s hard to keep track of dates these days.

It used to be real green around here, too, green and beautiful. The hills had these huge forests all over them, and the downtown buildings stuck up between them like silver pillars. On those nice, sunny days – you know, the ones you got in between spells of rain that you just treasured because they were so damn rare, if you can believe it – on those days, the city looked like something out of the future.

Well, the future as we’d hoped it would be. Exactly the opposite of what we got.

I guess I should say why I’m recording this. Power’s been out for years, obviously, with the rivers too low to run the dams. Before that we were using the Internet to try to get aid, but it was bad everywhere. There wasn’t any aid to send. ‘Round August of the third really bad year, the weather forecasters just quit posting their predictions, because there hadn’t been any change to predict. All those websites just said “help.”

Anyway, some folks had their own generators, so here and there you could get Internet if you needed something real specific that no one else had been able to tell you. But the news just kept getting worse and worse, from all corners of the world. Finally, a year and half ago I suppose, even the folks with generators couldn’t get online anymore. The weirdest part was no one seemed to know why. You’d think with all that information that’d been careening around for so many years, we’d be able to figure out why the world had ended, but all we got were wild rumors about nukes and aliens and liberals.

I guess the real weirdest part was that we didn’t mind not knowing. What difference would it make? Still no water.

Christ, it’s hot.

There used to be huge forests out in the mountains between the city and the coast. I haven’t been out there to see if they’re still standing, but I can guess. There used to be a lot of farmland out there, too, but I know for fact that’s still there ‘cuz that’s where I got run out of. Maniacs cursing the “libs” – those are finger quotes there, listeners – loaded with boxes and boxes of ammo but not enough water to drown a fly. Probably no farming knowledge, either. Good riddance. That land must be looking real bad by now. They chased me out nearly two years ago and even then it was turning yellow. Well, some fields are always yellow, but they’re still green, you know? Still alive.

Oh yeah, the tape. So there’s no more Internet, no planes, hardly any trucks…none that can be trusted to transport stuff, anyway. Paper’s mostly used up. I built a converter for my laptop but I save that for when I boot up to look at my old pictures of my grandkids. They were five and two when the bottom fell out of the world. The oldest should’ve been in high school now if everything…well.

So this tape is my invitation, I guess. I found a whole box of them in a basement so I can record a bunch, put them out here and there, maybe someone will be able to play one.

I’ve found a good spot up in the hills west of the rail depot. It’s small, but the soil does alright, and it’s secluded, which I figure is the most important part.

So if you hear this, come out and join me. I got corn, beans, some tasty cacti, even a couple apple trees. What’s mine is yours, if you’re willing to put up with a cranky old lady made extra cranky by the end times.

Oh, and my name’s Missy. That’s probably important. Look for the blue flag on the split pine. I’ll see you soon.