Category Archives: Shories

Emotion Sickness

Darryl was one of the first people Rachel met when she got to UNC-Trinity. She liked him. He was cute. Kind of a dork, but in a way she could appreciate. She’d made some bad choices already by then when it came to men and she was hoping to change her ways, maybe get it right this time.

Darryl didn’t seem to take to her immediately, though. He was more interested in this petite virgin, Michelle, who seemed like the shoe-in for the ingénue-protagoniste of their college saga. But was she interested in him? Nah. Darryl was the kind of guy who found a girl out of his league to be friends with and pine over.

She needed to save him from himself.

It was charity, really.

Rachel told herself she wasn’t going to use it anymore, but she actually had a superpower and her high school fan-club (which had consisted of her gay best friend and her frenemy Susan) assured her that it was the scariest, most powerful and most dangerous superpower there was—even if it was the most subtle and hardest to detect. Rachel had the ability to psychically manipulate other people’s emotions. If you were having a bad day, she could turn on the sunshine and make you infectious with glee. If you were too happy with yourself, she could activate your sadness and drown you in self-doubt.

It was horrible, of course. There had been a learning curve, because she knew she was a horrible person for using it and she had to deal with that, but when she found out the guy Susan had been sleeping with was becoming abusive, she had to do something, right? So she took away her love and her lust and replaced them with anger and a very rational fear.

She wasn’t sure how this power she had worked, or where it had come from or anything, but she conceptualized it as a color wheel of six basic emotions. The primary colors were Love (blue), Hate (red) and Fear (for the yellow-bellies). The secondary colors were trickier, but she figured that Grief (Green) was founded on Love and the Fear of losing it; Lust or Passion (purple) turned Love into a kind of Rage; which left Joy as a combination of Hate and Fear, which only makes sense if you really stretch things (but orange is the color of stupid people, so that makes it okay).

With these six basic emotions, she was able to get people to do pretty much anything she wanted them to do, as long as she activated them at the right times. So making this Darryl kid fall in love with her? Easy..

Not that easy, of course, though. It was a process. She couldn’t get him to fall out of love with Michelle (not that “love” necessarily had anything to do with it) but what she could do was push the Purple more to the Red end of the spectrum when he was around her, maybe sprinkle some Green in any time she went Orange.

It was weird, though, because Darryl still kept hanging out with Michelle, no matter how angry she made him. It was like there was something else compelling him towards her.

So she put herself in play, perhaps a bit sooner than she should have or otherwise would. She put herself in play as an antidote to Darryl’s unrequited feelings for Michelle, and she encouraged him to take her advances seriously.

But she underestimated Darryl. She underestimated what we are forced by the limitations of language to refer to as Darryl’s rational mind. The part of him that longed for Michelle wasn’t just physical or even emotional. She challenged him intellectually on a level few other people ever had, and shared his interests in ways few others could.

When he started to feel an attraction to Rachel, he knew it was irrational. He knew it was his body telling him to want sex, his heart (as it were) longing for amorous attentions, but Rachel couldn’t fulfill the roles that Michelle was taking up. She couldn’t, wasn’t even equipped for it.

So the more Rachel changed Darryl’s heart, the more conflict Darryl felt. He wanted to like Michelle, but he felt some strange irrational anger towards her at the strangest times. Was he really that shallow? He knew she didn’t want him—it didn’t stop him from wanting her, but it allowed him to cope with it. Was he really turning into that crazed, psychotic asshole misogynist taking out his own insecurities on the girl who wants to be his friend?

And then there was Rachel. He could tell she wanted him—he couldn’t imagine why, but he wasn’t blind. He just had to ask himself, How would that work? OK, she wanted to sleep with him, but then what? Did she want to be his girlfriend? Having someone willing to warm his bed did appeal to the baser facets of Darryl’s sensibilities, but no matter how many simulations he ran, he couldn’t make any of these numbers add up to a long-term sustainable connection. So he resisted. No matter what parts of him pumped his gas, he forced himself to stay in neutral around her.

He was sad (green) when she wasn’t around, passionate (purple, never completely blue) when she was, jealous (bright, blinding red) when she was with someone else, happy when she spoke (the orange of the stupid people) and all the while he was desperately frightened (yellow) of himself, of his yellow-bellied cowardice in dealing with the whole situation.

Finally, Rachel asked him “Why don’t you want me?” She was drunk at the time, they were at a thing, and he was drunk, too; when Darryl is drunk, he waxes poetic: “Because I don’t understand you. You’re this huge, terrifying force and there is absolutely no reason why I should want you.”

“So you think I’m fat?” she slurred.

This confused him.

“You do, you think I’m fat! I’m a fat whore manipulizing other people and their—“

“I don’t think I’m fat!”

“Well fuck you, then, because I am fucking fat! I’m fat and I’m horrible person!”

This made him feel worse. She knew because she was upping the Green in his aura. He made a move towards her and for a brief moment, she thought maybe she’d won, maybe this would be it.

But instead of taking her into his arms and smothering her insecurities with kisses and then guiding her to the bed, he just wrapped his arms around her and held her.

“It’s okay,” he told her. “You’ll find someone. There are plenty of reasons to like you, your fire, your personality. Those reasons just aren’t mine.”

It isn’t fair, she thought. Why does he have to be so nice?

But he was right, so she dismantled what she’d done to his aura.

By then, she had more important things to use her powers for anyway.


Truth, Faith and Joy

Truth Goodkind was born with a superpower. She could see the truth around a person. To her, the truth followed people around and kept them honest. She had this ability all her life and it took her a while to realize that she was the only one who had it.

“There is no Santa Claus!” she insisted, once she was old enough to talk about it. “You’re going to put the presents out with Daddy! You’re not Santa Claus!”

It was why she never wanted to sit on Santa’s lap as a child, either.

Truth’s younger sister Faith was different.

If Faith ever had a superpower, it must have been that she believed in herself. And when she believed in herself, she could do anything.

Of course, it’s hard to know for sure how much Faith might have achieved, even as a child, because every step of the way, she had her older sister Truth looming over her shoulder behind her.

“Faith!” Truth bellowed when she found her sister on top of the house. “What are you doing? Get down from there!”

“I’m going to fly!” Faith called down to her.

“No, you’re not!” Truth yelled back without thinking. “There’s no such thing as flying, you’ll go splat like an egg or a kitchen plate!”

But even as Truth said this, something she knew to be true, she noticed Faith’s truth hovering around her. Faith’s truth confirmed her actions. As she said it, the truth was that Faith could fly. She would fly. And yet, once her sister Truth had spoken to her, the truth that followed her around changed.

Truth watched it change before her very eyes.

“Remember,” her parents always told her, “don’t ever tell your younger sisters about Santa Claus.”

The lie distressed her, but when she looked at her sisters, all of them, she saw the lie of Santa Claus become truth.

“Mommy,” Faith asked one day, “Tell me about God?”

Truth knew by now that her parents were atheists, so she listened intently. Her father watched her, too, which told her this was one of those times she should keep the truth quiet.

And as her mother told her little sister the theory of the existence of God, of what God represented in the Christian worldview and others, she saw that her mother’s truth never wavered, but Faith’s started to deepen, started to expand and include all other types of possibilities.

“But you lied to her!” Truth scolded her mother. “You don’t believe any of that God crap!”

“That doesn’t mean she’s not allowed to. I want Faith to make up her own mind on this issue, Truth. We don’t know. We don’t. We just believe.”

Of course, the price for the rest of them was that Faith became absolutely insufferable. She read the Bible cover to cover and treated it as though it were… well, the Bible.

“Rather than a poorly written piece of ancient literature,” Truth complained to her parents. “And now she’s harping on the littlest things, stupid things, and telling the rest of us that we’re going to hell!”

So the parents talked to Faith. “You know, sweetie,” their mother said, “not everyone believes in God. Or hell. Or sin. A lot of pepole think the Bible is just an ancient text.”

But Faith didn’t care about all of that. She knew what she knew and what she knew was what she believed. And what she believed was her truth.

Then there was Joy. Joy was the youngest of the Goodkind sisters. If Joy had a superpower, it was to always see the good in people and bring it out, no matter how long it took. There are those who say that this is the most important power of them all.

“Why do you keep correcting people?” she asked Truth one day while coloring.

“Because they’re wrong!

“But they’re happy,” Joy pointed out. “Don’t you want them to be happy?”

“No,” said Truth. “I want them to be right.”

“But what does it matter what they think?”

But it did matter. Maybe not for most people, but int he case of Faith Goodkind, it certainly did. Because Truth was starting to think (based on evidence carefully gathered and curated) that if Faith was left to believe in a Christian God, then given enough time—given enough faith—she might be able to make that God real.

“And why would that be a bad thing?”

“Because,” Truth rounded on her obstinate middle sister, “the Christian God has been responsible for some terrible atrocities. Can we start with the plagues? Or wait—maybe go back farther, all the way back to the Garden! Or the Flood? And don’t start with your ‘Oh, but that was before Jesus’ crap—I know for a fact that you’ve read Revelations! And just look at his followers! The Crusades? The Witch Trials? The Inquisition?”

Everything that Truth said to Faith was hurtful at that time. But Truth wasn’t the only one speaking to her.

“What is it that you actually like about God?” asked Joy.

Faith thought about that for a while and decided, “What I like most is the idea of forgiveness. People spend too much time obsessing about Sin, about the Fire and Brimstone of it all. What I like about God is His capacity to forgive. Not just the little things, but the big ones, too. Anything, literally anything, can be forgiven. And He teaches us how.”

“As long as you agree to worship him,” Truth muttered from the corner.

“Maybe,” Faith conceded. “But if there was such a God, one who was willing to forgive unconditionally… Wouldn’t you want to worship that?”

“Butterflies and Hurricanes”

I don’t know that I can say that Declan “thrived” (throve?) after Raven left, but I might say that he blossomed. I could even say “hatched”. He broke out of the cocoon he’d woven for himself with his girlfriend those first couple years in college.

“We should start a band,” he said to his friend Jeffrey. Jeffrey had been in a band in high school, too, overseas in Brussels, of all places. “Anus de Manus” was the band’s name and they were, as he put it after watching Declan’s videos, “even more terrible than your Fear-band.”

“Angst,” Declan corrected him.

“Angst is Dutch for fear,” Jeffrey pointed out. And now, building on that, he added, “I think maybe it’s time you moved past that Fear.”

Jeffrey had an “actual classical education” in guitar, whcih was an unexpectedly huge adjustment for Declan.

“Why are you holding your guitar like that?” Declan asked.

Jeffrey had it propped on his right leg, which looked super awkward and put the guitar at an almost vertical angle, more like a cello. “It’s so I can reach further,” Jeffrey explained. “Or at least, that’s what my instructor used to tell me when she jabbed my thumb with a pencil.”

“You’re supposed to have your thumb there, though.”

“Not where I’m from.”

It was a weird adjustment, too, when it came to sound. “I want to add some violin,” Jeffrey said out of the blue. They weren’t even recording yet. “Guitar is too… There are too many memories for me.”

When school started up again—their junior year in college—they actually picked up a couple of freshmen.

“Don’t you think we need a name now?” asked Martin J. Quindlen.

“Butterflies and Hurricanes,” said Talthybius Jones.

“Sounds more like a name for an album,” said Jeffrey.

The name they decided on, ultimately, was Gorgasm and the Astral Vices.

“Why?” asked almost every girl Declan found himself sleeping with that semester.

“Well, our lead singer, Rachel, has a beautiful voice, so it was gonna be Astral Voices, ‘cause we’re going for something really, like, cosmic and ethereal, but then we got into this thing, the rest of us, about Greek mythology, and went waitaminutewaitaminute, and I can’t remember how, but we went from ‘Gorgon’ to ‘Gorgasm’ and decided that ‘Vices’ was more appropriate than ‘Voices’ then. I don’t know. We’re kinda metal? We’re kinda weird?”

Jeffrey didn’t make it the whole year with them. He was majoring in Physics and it became too much of a time commitment, but he did help set them up with a guy who ended up being their agent: Magnus Murgatroyd.

“That’s the most ridiculous name I’ve ever heard,” said Talthybius Jones.

“I gotta say, guys,” said Magnus upon meeting them, “your stuff, I really found it quite uh… quite moving.”

“Thanks,” said Martin J. Quindlen. “We do practice a lot.” Then Tally hit him. “Ow?”

“You kids got plans for the summer?”

Who needed Acid Monsoon, anyway? Who needed established platform and fanbase?

“Now,” Magnus told them, told Declan personally, closer to crunch time, “there are one or two things…”

There needed to be something in Declan’s look, you see. “We gotta kinda rough you up, audiences expect something kinda, I don’t know, a little bit rougher, a little bit gruffer, you know what I’m saying?”

“No,” Declan said. “It seems to me the audience wants a voice. My voice—or at least, my lyrics, my songs, my playing. They’ll want to know who this person is who’s making this music. Not the plastic thing the agents and record companies mold.”

“Listen, kid—“ He tries to make it sound conspiratorial when he says it, but he’s still kind of a dick. His message here was how people want things, people are predictable, and he was the one with all the answers.

Is that who I want to be? he finds himself asking.

Then he gets a text from Raven.

It’s been a while. Raven doesn’t feel a whole lot of need to come back. Not like she has family here. Not really. Just Declan and he doesn’t count because they broke up.

Does he regret that? Of course he regrets it. You know he does, because theirs is the big love story, the epic showdown. They’re the ones here who bleed for each other. He loves her. He would be in love with her, too, if they hadn’t kicked each other out.

“Playing in Trinity,” she says. “You should come. I’ll comp you.”

Did she not know that he wasn’t going to be in Trin’s Field that week?”

“I’ll be in Alabama,” he texts back.


“Yeah, didn’t you know?” He explains his new situation.

“Oh, wow,” she texts back. Thirty seconds pass. “Congratulations!”


How could he not have told her? How could they be so out of touch?

The next summer, they end up at a festival together. “You should totally open for us!” she says, then catches herself. “Unless that would be weird?”

“I’m sure the guys’d be thrilled,” he says, wondering if he is.

He assumes that she’s sleeping with at least one of her bandmates.

Not that he hasn’t slept with Rachel a time or two… He wonders why that feels different, reminds himself that wondering isn’t going to make the feeling go away. He needs to just be okay with it. He takes a cold shower, forces himself to think about it, to normalize it. She’s moved on.

“Hey, man.”

By now, Declan is out of the shower and wrapped in a towel. He wasn’t expecting to see Caspar June right there, his ex’s boss and whatever else, but he shouldn’t be as bewildered as he is. It’s not as if they haven’t met before.

“Do you feel awkward around me?” Caspar asks, and of course Declan does—especially after that question. “Can I ask you—is it because of the fame thing, or is it because of Raven?”

Declan doesn’t even need to answer. He knows it. Caspar knows it.

“Listen, I like you,” Caspar says. “I like your music. I think you’ve come really far. I’d like to see you go further. But there’s something that you gotta understand about the Game.”

Somehow, thinking of marketing and imagery as a game with an opponent was not somethign that had ever occurred to Declan. It helped. It reminded him of the campaign he’d run back in high school to get into Raven’s good graces.

“You don’t have to be that person,” Caspar said, “You don’t have to war the mask or the hat 24/7, even out in public. But you gotta treat the camera like a stage, certain people, especially journalists and producers, but even your own agent, they aren’t people and they are not your friends. They are your audience. Your audience wants a character. And a character is the opposite of a person.”

That was the most useful information anyone had ever given him about being an artist.

“Parallel Universe”

I’m in trouble.

I fucked up this time.


Is that one word or two? I guess if it’s one word, it can be an adjective, but two? “Big time?”

Fuck me.

“Big time.”

I’m pregnant.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. I know that it’s not supposed to happen because I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen anything like it. In fact, I’m pretty sure just with a cursory glance into the stuff that I know is going to happen to me in the next couple of years, that this completely contradicts everything I know about how my life’s supposed to be.

And I mean, come on, even beyond that, come on now, you know me. By now you must know who I am. Is this my story? Is this who I am? Who I…

I mean, I did… do this. I consented. I had sex. This wasn’t something that was done to me, it was a mistake I made, I was complicit. I had sex. With one of my best friends. We haven’t really talked since, not about… I don’t know if it was bad, if I… Maybe that’s…

Or maybe I was right about Trevor.

“I’m pregnant.”

I practice saying it in the mirror—a lot—before I finally work up the courage. It stops him dead in his tracks. He looks like he’s never going to smile again. Like there are too many other emotions he has to sort through first before he can get back to happiness.

“It’s okay,” I tell him, after I tell him. “You don’t have to do anything, I just—“

“How can you say that?”

“I’m taking care of it.”

He is genuinely confused and I realize too late there are too many ways that sentence can be read. Which way is he reading it? Which way does he want it to be read?

It doesn’t matter, I remind myself. He’s not the one who’s pregnant.

“Are you gay?” I ask him. Because maybe that’s a factor. I don’t know why it would be—no, that’s a lie. I can think up a million reasons, only half of them silly and a quarter more stupid, but that still doesn’t make the rest relevant. Not to me. Not here. Not now.

He looks at me and I can see him going through so much. I can see rejection, how he’s offended that I’d even think that—again/still—after what we’d done. But then underneath that, I can see… I don’t even know. It’s too complicated and I’m not a gay man—or any kind of man—myself. I can’t really fathom, psychic or not, what he’d be feeling now if he is gay. Or, for that matter, if he isn’t. But what I think I see is like a fear of what I’ll think of him and then underneath that, some sense of relief that he maybe just doesn’t have to hide it anymore.

“It’s okay,” I told him. “It’s okay if you are, and if you aren’t…”

He lunges forward. He kisses me.

It should be raining right now. Scenes like this belong in the rain.

I don’t even want to tell my mom. I mean, seriously, think about it. I’d be her third child to go through this. The hat trick. The fucking hat.

But Trevor doesn’t want me to have the abortion.

“You don’t have to come with me,” I tell him.

“Why did you have to tell me?” he asks. “I mean, if you knew that—that this was what…”

“Did it ever occur to you I needed someone to talk to? Who else is there? Lucy? Isabella? I only had you.”

But Trevor and I have very different ideas about how our life would be, how our kid’s life would be. To him, it’s so clear, it’s like a golden path, so shiny he doesn’t notice the mists at the edges. But I have seen the future. Almost a third of my life, I have lived there. It isn’t a path, it’s a maze and there are so many ways to get lost in it.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t want to have a child someday, to make all those mistakes, but I’m not ready. I’m not there. And I don’t think she is, either. I don’t know that it’s a she, of course. I can see her, like I said. It’s just easier to think of her, of the person she’d be, as me. Who would I be? How would my life go?

She could kill me. She’s not even a person yet, but already she’s a threat. They don’t teach you to think of reproduction as an extreme sport, but god fucking dammit. I know. I’ve seen it. I was in the fucking room and I’m not ready. I’m not ready for something that I can’t see.

He’s cold on the drive back. I think someday he might forgive me. I think so. Or get over it, at least. Or at least move on. I think. I hope. But I don’t know.

Was this supposed to happen? Was any of it supposed to happen? Did I make a mistake? Is everything… is everything going to change now?

Was any of it ever actually fucking real?

The Sublime and the Ridiculous

This Was a Bad Time to Laugh–If I laughed now, I could ruin it, and I really liked this girl, but she just couldn’t see what was going on behind her. We’d been talking religion (usually a bad idea for a first date, but I tend to get away with it–usually) and she was on a tangent about being on a religious retreat and seeing God in the shape of the curtains on the window.

You laugh, or roll your eyes, thinking it cheesy, but I actually like sentiment, thank you very much, and she had plenty. My problem wasn’t that she was being diabetically precious right now, it was the fact that there was a hotdog vendor out the window behind her, having an argument with a particularly precocious squirrel. This would have been entertaining enough in and of itself, but to make matters funnier, the squirrel had somehow managed to smear mustard in a streak across its furry scalp, so it now appeared to be wearing a bright yellow Mohawk, and it reminded me of the time I’d watched that punk pilfer the billfold off some suit bragging on the phone about his charitable businesses after conspicuously passing by a hooded homeless woman and her child without even a second glance, and how the punk had then given the cash to the needful and left the empty wallet under a tree.

The hotdog vendor was a jerk–I knew him–and deserved anything this squirrel would give him. But I couldn’t enjoy the Schadenfreude of seeing the hotdog vendor get his recompense while my utterly lovely date was seeing God in her memory of a blowing curtain. I knew the image she was talking about. I’d once seen Santa Claus through my open window as a child, and I remembered the Christmas morning anticipation, which must have something in common with the love of God, right? The promise of renewal, the rewards of virtue? I’m no great believer myself, but I appreciate the ability to snatch meaning from the jaws of apathy and spy the motives of the unseen.

So you see I couldn’t laugh, caught here quite thorougly between the sublime and the ridiculous, the unbearably romantic and the callous, uncaringly ironic.

“You’re smiling,” though, she finally noticed.

“Well… yeah. Why shouldn’t I be? I think it’s very sweet.”

“Sweet?” She seemed offended, but was still smiling.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said. “You just have a very out-there way of looking at the world.” Still not good. “I like it?”

“I don’t know,” she concluded. “It’s just how I think, I guess.”

And there’s nothing wrong with that! I wanted to scream at her. Well, not scream, maybe. I just wanted to shake her and throw my arms around her to reassure her, you’re not losing points! Be yourself! I love you!

Well, OK, that last part was a bit far, I suppose, for a first date, but really, it’s short-hand, at least, for “I love the way you find meaning in insignificant details”–dammit, that still sounds all snarky and cynical…

Just then, the squirrel appeared at the window, upside-down, looking right at me, head cocked to the side, and it was the cutest, most manically delightful thing I had ever seen, at least in contrast to the bliss of speaking to Her Hotness here with me. And it was so sudden and so striking, I just broke, I just couldn’t hold it anymore.

She frowned and finally looked behind her, but not in time. “What?” turning back.

I was forced to explain and apparently, it wasn’t as funny as I’d thought it was.

“It’s a squirrel? You’ve been watching the squirrel the whole time?”

I floundered. “Well, I mean… it’s the same thing, though, right? Seeing God in the movement of the curtain? Seeing God in a squirrel with a mohawk messing with a shifty hotdog vendor?”

She didn’t think they were the same.

This was a bad time to laugh.

“That’s not God,” she told me. “That’s something else. I thought you were different. I thought you understood. But you’re just like all the others, aren’t you? It’s all just a game to you…”

And she ditched me, walked out, left me behind. Left me feeling like a shallow jerk. Or no… Maybe I wasn’t the one who was shallow. Maybe she just couldn’t take the joke.

That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway…

The Synger Sisters

Once upon a time, there were twin sisters named Syndi and Abby Synger, each of them more terrifyingly beautiful than the other. Nary a boy (or even a man) could look upon either of them without losing his calm as his mind wandered into fantasy and desperation.

One day, the Synger sisters went to a fortune teller at a fair. They didn’t think much of it, really only went on a lark, but the fortune-teller told them “I see your path and it is a rocky one. Your beauty is an enemy to your love, for any man who falls in love with your beauty will suffer a terrible fate if you let him.”

At first, they merely thought the prophecy curious. Syndi mused “I thought fortune tellers were supposed to tell you what you want to hear?”

“She was probably just jealous,” Abby concluded. “Wanted to take us down a peg or two—well, we’ll show her!”

They weren’t—or didn’t think themselves—the type who would change their lives based on a prophecy. But it wasn’t just a prophecy they witnessed.

First it was Aaron Knoll.Syndi was out on an island in the bay, sunning, and he swam to her, but lost his breath and drowned when no one was looking.

“How do we know it was me he was swimming for?” she asked her sister, but Abby only looked at her until she realized of course he was.

Then it was Abby’s turn. Matt Golding stood outside her window in the rain, serenading her, and caught his death of cold. He had pneumonia, but still she visited him.

“Why did you do that?” asked Abby.

He could barely speak, let alone sing, but he managed to get out “You… are… so… beautiful… to me!” He died in agony three days later.

“That’s crazy!” Syndi insisted. “People don’t die of pneumonia—not anymore!”

“They’re not supposed to drown in the Bay, either,” countered Abby. “I’m telling you, this is the Curse!”

“The Curse?”

“Fine, then. The Prophecy. Whatever.”

“Well, we can’t just let that horrible old woman win!”

“You want to keep on killing guys who like you?”

But it wasn’t just liking them, and they both knew it. Syndi had been encouraging Aaron. Before she swam out to that rock herself, she sent him a come-hither glance that made him swoon, made him seek out his swim trunks. (Her glances weren’t quite powerful enough yet he’d follow her in his clothes.) It wasn’t enough that he loved her beauty, his love had to be requited. She loved that he loved her for it.

And Abby. She had truly loved Matt’s singing. She thought he was a wonderful person and she’d used her beauty to seduce his love.

“Never again,” Abby vowed. The red hair that was their pride and joy, she felled, sending it all down the drain to clog and salting the earth that grew it by continually bleaching it to hell. She wore make-up to hide her adorable freckles—not enough to stay pastily out of the sun. She covered herself in tattoos with rings through her nose, in her lip, in her cheek, not because she liked them, thought because she thought they looked good, but because she didn’t.

When she did take lovers, she did it through sheer force of will, overpowering them with her offputting frankness until they buckled under her sex. And the moment they sighed for her, the moment they said “It’s not the tattoos I love, it’s you,” it was over. They couldn’t come back.

But Syndi. She went the other way. “I’m not going to change who I am just because of some stupid witch,” she insisted when she saw what her sister was putting herself through. So she kept her beauty.

“You’re crazy,” Abby insisted. “You’re going to kill everyone. I swear to God, Syndi, every single guy you ever meet!”

But she didn’t. Not every one. They would fall in love with her, of course, just by looking—who wouldn’t? She was used to that. But she would never spare a second glance.

Once, she almost married a blind man. “You’re wasted on him,” her boss said to her after a meeting. “He could never really appreciate you.”

Which was why she let herself love him. Until one morning she was straddling him and he commented on the smoothness of her skin, on her scent and taste, on the sound of her voice.

That doesn’t count as beauty, does it?

Later that day, he was hit by a bus in the street and died instantly.

“You’re crazy,” Abby told her again after the funeral. “There’s no way you can live without love. It’s not physically possible!”

This angry challenge from her self-righteous sister was all Syndi really needed. She would not change who she was, she would only change what she wanted.

“You’re a cold-hearted bitch, you know that?” said man after shallow, ignorant man the last time she turned him down (and sometimes not even the last). Couldn’t they see, she had the warmest heart that ever beat. She expressed her love by sacrificing it to keep these men alive.

Every now and then, though, she found she couldn’t help herself. She’d notice something, or a girl-friend would whisper to her in confidence, and she would unleash. “You’ve been a bad boy,” she would whisper in the night, and he would die within twenty-four hours.

It gave her a reputation.

But that still didn’t stop suitors from lining up.

The Skeleton and the Old Crone

The old woman bent over her cauldron, the gnarled knobs on her hands dropping flecks of spice into the brew. The eye of newt, the ear of mole, all of the essentials were in it already. The recipe was well under way.

Outside, in the field beyond the heath, the earth stirred, the dirt cracked and when the dust had settled, there stood a menacing figure, thin and creaking and still wrapped in its shroud, the only wall between it and the elements. Not even flesh encased it; what lurked under the shroud was not bone-white but bone itself, divorced from even sinew, and yet it moved, crept skulking towards the small house on the moor.

The old woman poured herself some potion. It had been bad the last few days, but the warmth of it soothed her soul as much as its other properties worked on her body. With a sure, steady foot, she navigated the tightness of her hovel away from the fireplace at last and towards her bedroom when all at once her good ear pricked up at the sound of creaking at the door.

Was it her imagination? she found herself wondering. Or was the hour upon her at last?

Her suspicions were confirmed not by the fact of the knock on her door, but by its quality. She had no knocker on the eave, but here she could tell there could be no soft tissue muffling the rattle of bone on wood.

Choice was not a question in this venture. She changed course and set down her goblet on the organ on the way. Arriving at the foyer, she turned the handle and met the sight that awaited her.

“Well?” the old woman asked the skeleton, “are you going to stand out there in the rain, or would you like to come inside?”

Despite the nature of their depiction in art, there were no smaller bones in the face on the skull that could draw together or drift apart to create expression. The white shadow of a face gave no expression. Yet there was something unmistakable in its posture as it drew itself back in bemusement before graciously bowing its head.

“I know you can’t catch cold anymore,” the old woman remarked, “but I still have flesh and it’s not getting any less weak in this weather. Now get in here.” She made a path for the skeleton to pass her.

And pass her the skeleton did.

With stilted, creaking movements, the human remains approached and pulled up a chair and the old woman circled around the other side of her hoarded detritus, collecting the still-standing goblet on the way.

The skeleton reared itself up slightly before dropping back down—whether this was the affectation of a sigh by one who had no lungs or an attempt to pop an ill-used spine was beyond the crone’s ken. “I’d offer you a cup,” she assured the visitor, “but I doubt it would do you any good.”

One bony hand came up in a gesture of grateful refusal, but then paused and went back to the throat, as if suddenly remembering the unmistakable lack of vocal cords.

“Oh dear,” said the old woman, whereupon she put down her cup and made a series of hand-gestures, to which she received a response in the same medium.

“Do you remember how to talk like this?” her gestures said.

“Oh, yes!” was the reply. “Isn’t it lucky we learned this in our youth.”

“Yes, very lucky,” said the old woman aloud. Soon, she had setled down and picked up two long, sharp needles attached to a piece of children’s clothing. “Speaking of which, how are mother and father?”

The Skeleton nodded its skull and slowed, trying to decide how to phrase the response: “They have needed some time to adjust to one another after being apart so long, but they have found their way again at last.”

“Oh! Of course!” said the old woman in revelation. “What must have happened between mother and her first husband? And then father showing up to find her with a man who’d died before they ever met!”

“They are all fine now,” the skeleton assured her. “They have decided on an arrangement that is nothing short of modern, all marital bonds having dissolved at the point of death.”

“Oh, good!” the old woman exclaimed. “One oughtn’t fear a scandal in the AfterLife, it is what I have always heard said. Would not you agree?”

The skeleton nodded most emphatically, but then the nodding slowed as it drifted off into contemplation of its own loneliness.

The old woman soon realized what she’d stepped in and went back to her knitting, allowing the silence to seep into the space between them. Comfortably.

And soon the skeleton pushed back the hood of her shroud and nestled into the frame of the chair, leaning her head back into the soft shadow of the hearth and thinking how happy she was to be home for the holidays.