#1791

“What do you mean, you’re not coming back?” Anna stopped cold in the corridor, staring after her girlfriend as if not quite believing what she had heard. Jessryn turned back to see she had stopped walking, then took hold of her robe and pulled her to one side. “Are you telling me are?” she whispered furiously, keeping her voice low so as not to be heard over the sound of students moving between classes. “Of course!” Anna made no such attempt. “We have to!”

“It’s not our fight, Anna,” Jessryn glanced around, but no one seemed to be eavesdropping on their conversation. She moved closer to Anna and lowered her voice further, just in case. “My family’s going into hiding once the school year’s over. They want to wait for things to calm down, or fall out, or whatever’s going to happen. It’s not safe here anymore, not at Hogwarts and not in this country; I doubt even this continent. I don’t know where we’ll go, but you can bet it will be far, far away from here.” She cupped Anna’s face in one slightly trembling hand. “You should come with us. You’d be safer.”

“I’m not running away like a coward,” Anna stuck her bottom lip out, a stubborn expression Jessryn normally adored – now it only made her go cold. “So I’m a coward?” she asked, dropping her hand. Anna’s mouth fell open. “No! No, I just mean… this is our school. It’s been like a home to us the last six years. If it comes to a fight, shouldn’t we defend it?”

“Not if it costs us our lives,” Jessryn turned away, desperate to end the conversation. They rarely quarreled, and never over anything this serious; neither of them was saying what they really meant, or how they really felt. “I don’t want to talk about this right now. We’ll be late for Potions.” And with that she stalked off down the hallway, willing herself not to listen to check if Anna followed.

#1787

“That was… unsettlingly close,” Daren brushed ash and embers from his clothing as he stepped out onto the roof. Beside him, Tanim nodded in agreement. “Isn’t it always?” He seemed distracted, staring at something over Daren’s shoulder, and the younger man turned to see what had caught his attention. His shoulders sagged. “Is that…”

“Tornado?” Tanim nodded again in a matter-of-fact manner that belied the danger of their newest threat. “Yes. Yes, I believe so.” Although they stood on the roof of a towering skyscraper, a forest of other building spires surrounding them in all directions, a dark, fat funnel of wind roared not far away. As it rolled its way toward them, it chewed up buildings and streets alike, leaving nothing but rubble in its wake.

“Okay,” Daren turned away from the tornado with a sigh of unwilling acceptance. “Cool. And that?” He pointed upwards to where the dark clouds, from which the twister had been birthed, were bubbling and roiling like boiling water. Amid the movement the broad edge of some spacecraft could be seen; it took up half the sky, and beside it the tornado seemed a paltry risk. Tanim stared at the ship that was clearly out of the trailer for Independence Day: Resurrection and commented mildly, “You know… it occurs to me that we might not make it out of this one. She’s not that good.”

“Time to wake up?” Daren suggested, indicating with a nod the direction where there were, as yet, no new surprises – though a distant glint implied a tsunami might be approaching. Giving the impending warship one final wary glance, Tanim mumbled, “sounds good,” and followed Daren to the roof ledge. Without any parting words or declarations of love, he pushed Daren over the edge, then closed his eyes and let the dreamer take over as he fell as well. At least she was good at slipping out of dreams when necessary, even if it was her own mind that conjured the various disasters and threats they faced.

#1786

If this is the apocalypse, it’s not so bad. Don’t get me wrong, I mean, the power’s been out for weeks now and the whole city smells like unflushed toilets and burning trash. Most of the defensible buildings and hiding spots have been claimed, boarded up, and packed full of whatever supplies and weapon-like objects could be lifted from the non-defensible buildings. The sky’s a uniform gray because it snows non-stop, or just about, and if you don’t watch your step you’ll break through snow and ice and fall down an entire subway stairwell – and that’s if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, you’ll step on the squishy flesh of a buried dead and it’ll grab your ankle before you can right yourself. They eat better than any of the living, these days. Except maybe the wolves.

So I mean, it’s not pleasant or anything. It’s just not as bad as I guess I always thought it would be. I holed up in some ground floor apartment in the university district, just one bedroom and one bathroom, and I share it with five others. We aren’t best friends, but we get along okay as long as no one tells the blond chick to stop being so bossy. The girls sleep in the bedroom, of course, and us guys on the cheap carpet in the living room. At night you can hear the dead shuffling around and you have to keep pretty quiet, but as long as you only light the one lantern, you can at least play cards.

That’s all beside the point, though, because what I really mean when I say it isn’t so bad is, well, her. Not the blond one, the other one, with the flaming red hair and the eyes that can be hard as steel when she needs. Man, that hair stands out like a torch when we’re out in the cold, gray city. You’d think that would make her a target, make her want to cover up, but no, she just stands there like some Amazon. If the dead could feel anything, I know they’d fear her. As it is, the living don’t mess with her much, and so they don’t mess with us much either. It’s nice. I mean, there’s nowhere to take a girl out now and where would it lead anyway, marriage? Yeah, we’re gonna settle down in a nice little place off the collapsed viaduct. Have an indoor pool and everything – you know, because the house is half under water.

So anyway, like I said before, it’s not great. I’m just saying I never woulda met her if the world hadn’t come crashing down around us all. Gotta find the silver lining in this sorta thing, right?

#1785

“Tanim, are you even listening to me?” Catherine glared from the bathroom doorway, fingers sliding a pearl earring expertly through her earlobe. Tanim glanced up from his phone but his unfocused eyes clearly did not register his wife’s irritation. “Yes, dear,” he replied absently, already looking back down at the screen, “the dinner tonight… seven…” Why wasn’t Daren responding? What was taking him so long? Restless with anxiety, Tanim began pacing the living room, eyes darting from the phone to the window and back again as if the message might magically appear in either. On his second pass his subconscious registered something odd and he stopped mid-stride, staring out at the city spread below. What had he seen? Nothing appeared out of order, just the usual view of other high rises and polished towers, faintly obscured to the right by encroaching morning fog.

No, not fog. Too dark. Too substantial.

Tanim’s gut clenched. It was smoke. Smoke, drifting westward from somewhere east of their building, its density suggesting the source could not be that far away. Dropping the phone in his haste, Tanim ran for the door just as Catherine entered the living room. “Tanim, what’s going on?” Her startled voice was muffled by the pounding of his heart. He neither bothered to reply nor even close the front door as he ran down the hallway, foregoing the elevators in favor of taking the stairs down two at a time. When he finally reached the ground floor and burst out onto the street, the scent of burning wood and less natural materials confirmed his first suspicion.

His second suspicion, one based more on irrational fear than any real evidence, became steadily more likely as he took off in the direction of the smoke. With each block the haze grew thicker and it wasn’t long before Tanim could hear the wail of sirens; an ambulance passed him as he ran, heading toward his same destination, and within minutes another passed going the opposite direction. Breathless both from running and from the tainted air, Tanim could barely keep his legs moving as he rounded the final corner. Facing now the source of the smoke, he froze. He was right, though there had been no reason to think–

Fire had gutted and blackened the old brick building. Every window had broken, either from the force of the blaze or by the firemen who still swarmed over the lot. Soot darkened the brick and covered the scorched grass, flakes of ash still drifting out the windows and settling onto Tanim’s hair and skin. For a moment Tanim simply stood on the sidewalk, staring numbly at the wreckage. Then the anxiety that had for a moment been smothered by dread flared to life again and his mind began whirring. Heavily suited firemen still patrolled the grounds, moving in and out of the building’s battered front doors with caution, and paramedics moved between them, tending to the wounded at a temporary triage center set up in the parking lot. But there weren’t many wounded, it looked like, and more bodies were covered in white sheets than laying upon them.

Tanim began running again without realizing his feet had ever left the ground; he only registered his action when a gloved hand smacked into his chest, preventing him from broaching the scene any father. The fireman must have said something but Tanim wasn’t listening, had already started demanding to know what had happened, how many had died, who lay among the injured. Only when the fireman grasped Tanim’s collar and shook him hard, repeating, “SON! You need to calm down!” did he pause for breath. The man eyed him, seemed to accept his hysteria as true concern and not an attempt at voyeurism, then gestured over to one of the paramedics. The other man approached, a clipboard in one hand, and the fireman released Tanim’s shirt. “He’s looking for someone,” he said by way of introduction, then turned and resumed his work.

“What’s the name?” The paramedic was consulting what appeared to be a list of the apartment building’s residents. Choked by fear, hope, and acrid smoke, Tanim barely managed to cough out, “Daren. Daren St. Anthony.” The paramedic frowned, flipped through a few more papers, frowned deeper, then returned to the list. After seconds that seemed to Tanim like an eternity, the man nodded, said only, “Right, follow me,” and took off across the blackened lawn.

“He’s here?” Tanim peppered the paramedic with questions as he followed. “Was he hurt? Is he okay? What happened?” The man didn’t answer until they had approached the temporary hospital. He nodded in the direction of a white tent. “He was marked as dead when we first found him,” he explained, “but they tagged him red once they’d had a chance to examine him.” With that he waved a nurse over and handed Tanim off to her, just as the fireman had handed Tanim off to him. The nurse, too, had a clipboard, on which were pages of paperwork she apparently wanted Tanim to fill out, but he ignored her and pushed his way into the tent.

Had there been more than one cot currently occupied, Tanim might not have recognized his lover. Daren’s once pale skin was burned black and red, loose bandages covering the worst spots but nothing left untouched. Even his face sported burns, and his already short hair had been singed off. Tanim knelt beside him in an instant, yet couldn’t bear to touch the skin that even now radiated heat and a sickening smell.

“Daren…” His voice seemed swallowed up by the magnitude of the disaster and he had to clear his throat to speak more clearly. “Daren, can you hear me?” The man’s eyelids twitched, then opened a crack. Beneath, his dark eyes were glazed with pain, yet aware enough to fix themselves on Tanim. Letting out a trembling breath, Tanim forced a smile. “Hey,” he whispered. “How are you?” Beneath the oxygen mask covering his mouth, Tanim could swear he saw Daren’s cracked lips tilt up in a very faint, and probably very painful, smile. “Good,” he seemed to mouth, and Tanim, unable to resist, touched the tips of his fingers to Daren’s.

#1781 – Summer Solstice 2016

Standing in the bedroom doorway, frozen: Tanim. Laying on the bed within, languid and smiling: Daren. Between them: the heady, noxious odor of gasoline.

“What’s going on?” Tanim asks slowly, taking in the glistening bed sheets, the soaked carpet. Daren lifts his arm to take a drag on the cigarette balanced between two long fingers; his wet clothing clings to his thin frame. “It’s so easy to mold the mind of a madman, isn’t it?” he replies as idly as if commenting on the weather.

“What are you talking about?” White-knuckled, Tanim grips the doorframe as if torn between running and coming closer. “What have you done?” Daren exhales a stream of smoke and blinks dreamily. “I think you know.”

“Come out of there,” Tanim extends a hand, frowning, and steps over the threshold. His shoes sink into the wet carpet. “Careful,” Daren waves the cigarette back and forth, the embers carving light trails in the dark. “I wouldn’t take another step forward if I were you.” He waits until Tanim has eased back before asking, “Does it anger you, that I got to it before you could?”

“You’re not making any sense, darling,” There is a note of pleading in Tanim’s voice, but Daren continues as if his lover hasn’t spoken. “What were you planning, anyway?” he wonders aloud. “A gun? Poison? Or perhaps something more intimate, like your bare hands?”

“You won’t know now, will you?” Tanim’s scowl is sudden and dark, his teeth bared like a predator whose prey has been stolen. Daren only sighs. “My loss, yes.” He holds his arm out over the side of the bed, dangling the cigarette between two limp fingers. His gaze is quite clear now, no longer lethargic and amused, but the smile remains as he locks eyes with Tanim. “You might want to run now, beloved,” he advises.

Tanim runs. Daren lets the cigarette fall.

[ Read all of the solstice fragments so far. ]

#1776

“Something on your mind, Captain?” Mage didn’t bother to turn her head as Tanim approached, the breeze carrying before him his scent of whiskey and gunpowder. “Just wondering what it will be like,” she replied, staring up at the night sky past the ship’s rigging. “After?” he asked as he came level with her at the bow, his cigarette a tiny pinpoint of light in the darkness. She nodded in both greeting and confirmation. “After.”

For a moment they stood silent, gazing together at the impossible sight above. Like a gash in the hull of a great ship, the scar tore its way across the dome of the sky, bleeding bruised purples and blues that obscured the stars. Though its movement was not visible to the naked eye, the wound slowly widened each night, tearing through the fabric of the universe itself. They could gaze on it from a thousand different worlds. “What if it’s worse?” Tanim asked, finally breaking the silence. Mage shrugged, still staring at her creation. “What if it’s better?”

“Either way, they’ll still call you a villain,” Tanim leaned against the deck railing as he took a drag on the cigarette. “Don’t you find that unfair?” Mage fought the urge to shrug again. “I don’t mind,” she replied instead. “A villain is just the person who’s willing to do what no one else will. You know how that is.” Tanim made a short, dry sound that could have been a laugh or could have been from the smoke. “That’s why I’m here,” he answered by way of agreement.

“Yes,” The captain tilted her head to flash him a wry smile, breaking the solemnity of the moment. “Why did the moon murder the sun, anyway?” Tanim offered her a smirk and one raised eyebrow in reply. “I don’t know,” he countered, “why did the exile destroy the light?” Mage barked an amused laugh and clapped him on the shoulder. “Touche,” she conceded, and that was the end of that.

#1775

Even when I was just a little girl, I knew I was heir to a broken dynasty. When I played princesses, the king had always perished in battle and the queen was always under a sleeping spell. The sole prince did his best to keep the kingdom running, but it left him no time to rest and he was always rushing from one rampaging dragon to another. In the middle of it all was me, the young princess raised more by her maid and dolls than by her real family.

We didn’t talk about the other prince, the missing one, even in my fantasies.

I have only vague memories of my father before he died. I recall a man who could be stern, but also kind and loving. I think I remember the same of my mother, though she must have changed after our father died – or perhaps I made those first memories up as a childhood comfort. As for that other prince, our oldest brother, I remember nothing. He would have been around in my earliest years, but I can’t even conjure a blurred memory of his face. By the time Father had passed and I was more aware of the greater world, all traces of that brother had been hidden carefully away. Never in all my exploring did I ever stumble across boxed up photos or old mementos; it was as if he had never existed. Even his name seemed more to me like a distant location we had visited long ago but not enjoyed, and therefore didn’t bother mentioning, instead of someone who must have held me in his arms.

Maybe one day I’ll ask Jon for the whole story, now that Mother’s gone and there’s no chance of resurrecting her pain. I know it won’t be a tale of magic or mystery, as I pretended when I was a child. Most likely it will be just another story with an unhappy ending. We’re used to those in this family, it seems.