The Wizard’s Cat
–by Rose Guildenstern–
It was Papa who named me “Justcat,” which irks Nana to no end.
He said that when he found me, I was fat and dark and mewling like a kitten–although decidedly human, I snuggled close for warmth against the dead witch’s familiar, a black cat.
He says I looked “just” like a little black “cat.”
I never knew who my real mother was. Papa says that the dead witch, although known for eating children, never had any of her own.
When Papa inquired about me in the village surrounding the old witch’s hut, the villagers, though relieved at news of her demise, were just as baffled by my existence as he. Not more than a few months old, I seemed to appear out of nowhere. So, Papa jokes that the witch’s cat, whom he named “Ferocious” because of how she spat and clawed at Papa when he first bent down to pick me up, must be my true mother.
Ferocious insisted on accompanying us the day that Papa brought me home, and she has slept by my side, protected me, and petted me like one of her own ever since.
Papa is known around these parts as The White Wizard—and they always say it like that, capitalizing “The” in a sort of hushed, awe-filled whisper—which has nothing to do with being good or evil, but refers to his attainment of the highest level of wizardry, the Order of the White Orb. His magic, which he calls his “art,” comes from his Intellect, the Divine Words, and the Stars.
Considered the greatest wizard in the land, all manner of adventurers and kings and other famous-type persons seem to always be traversing vast distances to accost Papa for advice and assistance of one sort or another.
My Papa’s housekeeper, crotchety old Nana, offers me the closest thing to a mother I’ve ever known. Wizards never marry, but Papa knew that I would need a woman’s influence about the house, as he often travels for months at a time and is apt to lock himself in his study and lose track of the outside world for weeks.
It’s difficult to grow up the only non-magical person in a decidedly magical household. Nana is what the locals call a kitchen witch, for her magic—which she calls her “craft”—comes from her intuition, herb lore, and the earth.
She’s the town midwife, druggist, and conscience.
Even Ferocious is a familiar, adept at vanishing at will, predicting the weather, and materializing any manner of small rodent or lame bird at mealtimes, although Nana insists that these are the skills of any cat “worth its whiskers.”
Frankly, I think it all stinks. I live in a house of arts and crafts, but I am painfully ordinary. And chubby. And short. Nana says I spend far too much time staring in our looking-glass and bemoaning my appearance, but she doesn’t understand me. I keep hoping I’ll wake up pretty, to make up for my complete lack of specialty.
This morning I notice two new pimples. One on my nose and another in a place that is none of your business.
The gods must hate me.
Then something strange happens, which is really saying something in this household. As I stand in the basement, scrutinizing my unsatisfactory image in the only looking-glass we own, a small bearded man wearing a tall, pointy red hat appears on the ground to my left.
He is riding a particularly large cockroach, with miniature saddle and reigns to boot.
“Be thou the Lady Justcat?” he asks in a surprisingly deep voice.
I’ve found that, when you don’t know what else to do, you just go with it. “Um…yes. That’s what I’m called.”
“Dog and I have searched long and wide for you, my lady. We hail from the kingdom of the gnomes. I am Mud, second child of King Dirt the Eighth.”
Gnomes! Of course. I’ve heard of them, but I thought they were myths. I look around for his travel companion, even more confused. “Dog? I see no dog.”
The gnome points to his insectoid mount. “Dog be the name of my trusty steed. The most resilient and noblest of creatures.”
Hey, it takes all types. Who am I to judge? “It’s nice to meet you…both. You say you’ve been looking for me?”
The cockroach speaks to me in a surprisingly cultured voice, sort of like what a butler would sound like if he were a bug. “We need your help most urgently, my lady.” Dog’s blattodea face stares at me in this tiny scrunched-up creepy-crawly way that will probably give me nightmares for weeks.
It takes me a moment to respond. First of all, I didn’t know that cockroaches could talk. I also can’t imagine why anyone, no matter how down on their luck, would journey anywhere for my help.
“I think you may have the wrong person. Don’t you want the counsel of The White Wizard? He’s my father, and he’s upstairs. At least, I think he is. He actually hasn’t come out of his study in four days.”
Mud dismounts, standing remarkably tall for such a diminutive fellow, and says, “It is because of The White Wizard that we seek your guidance. He has gone missing.”
How can Papa be missing? I saw him just four days ago eating cheese on toast at breakfast. Besides, Nana would have known if he’d gone missing, for sure.
“He’s not missing, he’s here. I’ll take you to him.” I motion for them to follow, and trudge up the stairs to find Nana in the kitchen.
Nana’s kitchen has so many odors in it that the nose goes numb and runs in mortal terror. This morning she seems to be boiling another pot of what she calls “med’cine,” but which Papa contends is simply a highly-spiced version of chicken noodle soup. Nana believes that “erbs” are the secret to longevity and touching your toes at ninety, so it seems that everything she cooks has a least a hundred of them in it. Papa told me that one of those religious guru-types who prided himself on being able to taste three hundred distinct flavors in a cup of tea, once sampled a bowl of Nana’s med’cine and quit in disgust after 3,007. Mind you, it wouldn’t be so bad if it was like sipping a glass of wine or hot coffee, with all those hoity-toity berry, chocolate, and oak flavors and all, but Nana’s med’cine generally has nasty aftertastes like eye of newt and pellet of squirrel.
The only thing missing from Nana’s kitchen today is Nana herself.
That’s odd. Nana would never leave a pot boiling unattended without ordering someone to watch it. It’s her own peculiar brand of torture, if you ask me, since the more you watch her pot, the less it boils.
I turn off the stovetop so Nana’s med’cine doesn’t boil over.
Ferocious, at least, lies dozing in a patch of sunlight on the kitchen floor. “Where’s Nana?” I ask Ferocious, leaning down to scratch her behind the ears.
The cat opens one amber eye in disdain, ready to chastise me for disturbing her majesty’s nap time, when she spies the gnome and cockroach just behind me.
She jumps up with the most terrific caterwaul, and pounces, only to claw at empty air.
Mud and Dog have vanished.
Ferocious seems beside herself. Her head darts in every direction until, when it dawns on her I have been observing her feline failure the entire time, she relaxes into a definitively disinterested stance and casually mews at me as though to say, “Oh, so you’re here, are you?”
Since I have no idea where Mud and Dog—or Nana for that matter—have gone, I decide to climb the winding staircase to Papa’s study in the attic, then knock on the door.
Even though I’ve been instructed never to do so, I turn the knob and walk in, fully expecting a spell of freezing to stop me in my tracks.
Papa’s study is empty.
And I mean totally empty. It’s not just Papa who’s missing, but his entire library, all his magical tools, and even his desk. Only his second-best wand lies discarded in the middle of the hardwood floor.
Ferocious strolls in and sniffs the abandoned wand.
Now, you may well wonder why I’m not freaking out. I mean, if your parents were suddenly gone, you’d probably get help from another adult or at least break down and have a good cry. But you see, Nana and I are used to not being able to find Papa, who often forgets to tell us he’s going to be busy for a few days saving the world again.
It’s actually Nana’s absence that has me the most concerned. She sometimes travels to local towns for witchy gatherings or to deliver babies and such, but she and Papa have never left me alone at the same time before.
Well, I am thirteen. Maybe they’ve decided I’m finally old enough to take care of myself.
“Do you know where Papa is, Ferocious?”
Ferocious growls and brings me the wand in her mouth. Okay, maybe I’m not entirely alone. I mean, they’ve left Ferocious to make sure I don’t get into too much trouble.
As I take the wand from Ferocious, I hear Mud’s bass voice say, “This must be the White Wizard’s laboratory.”
I look down to see Mud and Dog gazing up at me, eager expressions on their little faces.
“How did you know he was gone?”
“He was speaking to my mother via crystal ball when he instructed her to send me to find you if he disappeared, and then he disappeared.”
Sounds a bit fishy, if you ask me. Something Papa might do for one of those unorthodox lessons he’s always trying to teach me. “So, your mother, the queen of the gnomes, sent you to find me?”
“Yes, Queen Water.”
I couldn’t stop myself. “So…Dirt and Water made Mud?”
He didn’t smile. If anything, Mud’s eyes went a bit shale. He must have heard that one before.
He cleared this throat and counted to ten. Literally, out loud. Then he answered, “I will forgive your insult. You obviously have no knowledge of my people and our ways.”
Come to think of it, I don’t know anything about gnomes. Which is surprising, since I thought I’d received the best education in the world from Papa.
“If you don’t mind me asking, can all gnomes disappear and reappear at will, or is that your own particular gift?”
“The kingdom of the gnomes is everywhere. Earth belongs to every species, despite humanity’s bigheaded belief that land should be divvied up into small plots and ‘owned.’ Over time, big people convinced themselves that gnomes don’t exist, rather than admit gnomes share equal right to what they consider their land. Therefore, my people pass among the big people all the time unnoticed.”
“O-o-o-ka-a-ay, I acknowledge your world view. But Ferocious and I saw you, and then we didn’t. How do you explain that?”
“I manipulated the facts using your own biases.”
My mind reeled. “What? How can you manipulate a cat’s biases?”
“Cat’s are perhaps the easiest to manipulate, because of their predatory nature.”
“But I knew you were there.”
Mud rolled his eyes as though speaking to a rather slow toddler. “I used your false belief that your ‘Nana’ was not in the kitchen to hide myself.”
“You hid behind my false belief?”
Mud thrusts out his chest as he raises his chin high. “The more lies a person believes, the easier it is to conceal oneself from that person.”
Wrinkling my snub nose, I ask, “Is this some fancy kind of magic I’ve never heard of before?”
“If you define ‘magic’ as something that someone else can do that you can’t explain or reproduce yourself—then yes.”
“So, by your definition, we only call what The White Wizard does ‘magic’ because we all don’t know how he does it and cannot do it ourselves?”
That’s when I realize that Mud called my belief that Nana was not in the kitchen “false.”
“Are you saying that Nana is still in the kitchen?”
With a gleam in his eye, Mud answers, “You’re actually quite smart—for a big person.”
I pick up Ferocious despite yowls of protest and hurry the cat with Papa’s second-best wand back down his winding staircase to the kitchen.
It’s exactly as I left it, except the pot of med’cine has cooled down.
I look closely around the room, but no Nana. “So, you’re saying that Nana is somewhere in this kitchen.”
Mud rides Dog straight up the side of Nana’s kitchen counter to stop just to the left of Nana’s med’cine pot. “It probably seems to you that my mighty charger’s ability to climb this vertical surface is like magic, but each cockroach actually has six sharp claws that it inserts into the exterior irregularities—like a rock climber with six axes. He can even appear to float across your ceiling, effortlessly hanging upside down, using the same technique. It is only your incorrect belief that climbing a vertical wall is impossible and your own inability to walk across the ceiling that makes Dog’s climb seem magical.”
I’ll never look at a cockroach quite the same way again.
In fact, I may never sleep again for fear of a random cockroach waving six petite axes as it falls into my snoring wide-open mouth.
Ferocious seems bored as she leaps out of my arms and lazily makes a show of circling around and around until settling herself back down in the largest patch of sunlight on the kitchen floor.
Holding only Papa’s wand in my right hand, I don’t know what to think. I can’t find Papa or Nana, but Ferocious doesn’t seem anxious about either one of them, which is completely out of character if one of them is in any danger.
Now I am sure that Papa has concocted this entire set-up.
“It makes no sense,” I say aloud more to myself than to anyone else, “where are Nana and Papa?”
“You’re not asking the correct question, my dear Justcat,” Dog says in his cordial insect voice. “The problem is not where, but why?”
“Why are they missing?”
“No, why can’t you find them?”
Mud looks at Dog with a knowing grin as he says, “Well said, my friend.”
Very well, why can’t I find them? I’m only thirteen, for starters. With a remarkably good education, but no magic. Hmm. This lesson must be pretty important if Papa talked Nana into joining in his shenanigans.
So, what would Papa and Nana both want me to learn?
Maybe I have magic and just don’t know it yet? Excited, I hold out Papa’s second-best wand and wave it at the cold pot of med’cine.
Oh, well, a girl can wish.
Then I notice something rather strange about the wand in my hand: It’s warm. Too warm for a piece of wood. Warm as a human being, actually. I look more closely at the fine woodgrain on its surface, and make out two arms, two legs, and a bearded face in its pattern.
Topped by a wizard’s hat.
Sighing, I lay the wand on the floor and speak to it: “I know you’ve transformed yourself into a wand, Papa. You may as well show yourself.”
With a great poof of sparkles and smoke that sets Mud and me coughing, the wand transforms into Papa, dressed in his second-best robe. “Well done, Justcat, well done. You’ve seen through my magic. Now can you see through Nana’s?”
I look around the room. If Papa was a wand, what would Nana disguise herself as?
“Nana, I know you’re the pot of med’cine.”
Without Papa’s pomp and flourish (and no smoke, thank goodness), the pot of med’cine morphs into my cantankerous old Nana, sitting on the cold stovetop and wearing her characteristic scowl.
I wonder how she was able to stand it when the heat was on?
Nana looks directly at Papa as she hops off the stovetop, her scowl growing larger by the second. “She’s a clever one, but she doesn’t know what she knows. I told you your cockamamie idea wouldn’t work.”
Five sets of eyes—two very small, two human-sized, and one cat-sized—round on me in expectation.
Ferocious chirrups at me the way a mother cat tells her kitten to pay attention.
Wait a minute—mother cat?
If Papa became a wand and Nana became a pot, could I become something, too?
What was it Mud said about lies and biases? Could my own beliefs about myself be concealing the truth of myself from myself?
I look down at my hands, my apparently human hands, and at last see beyond their façade.
They begin to change before my newly feline eyes. They grow black hair, fingernails recede into retractable points, and fingers shorten as plush pads rise from my palms. I feel myself shrinking as it seems more natural to place them on the floor with my back legs for stability.
At last, I grow a long black tail.
Mud claps his hands in delight.
Ferocious starts purring.
I shift back into my chubby human-girl form, standing upright and momentarily uncomfortable not by the alteration, but with the weight of this larger body of lies.
Papa puts his arm around my shoulders and says, “Welcome to the family, Justcat the Shapeshifter. Yours is the rarest of gifts.”
Nana harrumphs. “Rarest of gifts, bah! Shapeshifting ain’t that rare. Now, her willingness to listen to what she knows in her gut despite what others have decided and what she’s decided herself, that’s what’s rare.”
Rare. I’m gifted and rare.
I have two pimples, and I may not know my mother, but I know who I am.
I’m my own familiar.
–by Rose Guildenstern–
Taking the first step out the door is always hardest.
The empty blue of the sky, the hopeless green of the lawn.
A simple trip to the grocery store initiates his private Day of the Living Dread. Seven blocks to slog across ruthless gray sidewalks and suppressive black asphalt.
The glass sliding door malevolent in its refraction.
The produce section peddling its own brand of torture.
The violent purple of the eggplants, the bleeding red of the tomatoes.
Right foot for 3.1 million children who starve to death each year. Left foot for 124 cracks to cross on the way to sensory Armageddon.
Right hand for the millions upon millions of distinct frequencies visible in Clarence’s rainbow. Left hand for the seven colors that everyone else blissfully enforces.
Sunglasses muddle but never quite mitigate the googolplex of visible-light photons radiating judgment every second from the miasma of incandescent plasma called “the sun” by the unaware.
“What’cha buying today, fruitcake?” Ms. Cecilia, the checkout clerk, never fails to allude to when the police hauled Clarence away to the hospital because of the Christmas fruitcakes in fifty-seven wicked hues.
She takes a languid sip from a paper cup of sugar-laden latte, which he knows to be the color of dregs.
Her dreary brown eyes pity Clarence’s food choices as she scans his steel-cut oats and distilled water.
Ms. Cecilia, of course, blessed with faulty cone cells in her atypical colorblind eyes, loves the world and everyone in it.
Connection is easy when you don’t see.
Clarence accepts the sad beige plastic bag from Ms. Cecilia, and begins the agonizing trek home.
Right foot for the average human eye with three color receptors that can see about a million colors. Left foot for some rare folks who have four types of cones—scientists call them tetrachromats—and see a hundred million.
Clarence has over fifteen color receptors, like a bluebottle butterfly.
There’s a reason an adult butterfly only lives about one month, unless it migrates away from its cold, dead inception.
Light does not simply shine on Clarence, it flits about him. It plays and pounces.
The Evil Ultraviolet stalks the living, but the living do not comprehend it.
Darkness offers even more shades to haunt him than the light.
Right hand for the colors that most people don’t realize are alive. The three dimensions of space and the fourth dimension of time are extended, but the fifth dimension is curled up and hidden within the colors of the first four. They are otherworldly entities, the gods of our physical universe.
Left hand for every decision a person thinks he or she makes, oblivious that it is the colors who really choose.
The colors of one make another fall in love.
The hated are inundated with despised tints.
Clarence passes the intersection of Mine and Thine. The sunny day provokes the colors to rage with divine right, altering the actions of their weaker-willed pets.
Clarence slides not one, but three pairs of sunglasses over his eyes, squinting as the white light begins its mischief.
Radio waves of beyond-red destruction reach out to influence and poison minds, as two teens honk loudly and gesticulate at a slow-moving car in front of them.
Meandering microwaves infiltrate cells, plumping them to bursting as a balding woman creeps before him, bloating with cancer stains.
Infrared rays greenhouse the eyes and atmosphere, as a tall man dials his cell phone and incandescent bulbs light up the town.
X-rays mutate and irradiate as electrons collide with the metal infrastructure of civilization.
Gamma rays from the local power plant and Fukushima continue their quest to liberate life from living.
Clarence glances behind himself to see his footprints glow florescent green and blue on the murky pavement.
Counting 124, he makes it to his own unpainted front door.
Clarence steps over the threshold, locks the door, and sits in his favorite easy chair.
He closes his eyes.
Only then does he allow himself to drift into the space between the colors.
The colors have taken sides, declaring war on certain preferences. Normal people don’t realize it yet: they call it “climate change” or the “race wars” or blame it on the president.
Their eyes cannot encompass the vast separation blighting the entire spectrum.
They only see seven intervals in their many-colored coats of tone.
Clarence listens to the evening news on television with eyes shut, perceiving the wavelengths through his ears and nose, preferring this resonant assault to his visual agony.
The newscaster drones on and on, both intense and bored at the same time.
Clarence can’t stand the color wars any longer.
Knowing his home by blind touch, he reaches his right hand to pull open the drawer on his end table. He removes a 9mm.
With his mental health history, he’s not allowed to own it. But when did that ever stop anyone?
He opens his eyes one last time to see the disgusted black gun, loads one solitary golden bullet, places the muzzle in his mouth, and pulls the trigger with his left hand.
The colors steal his exhale as the bullet rips through his mind: the red of his blood, the pink of his brain, the white of his bones. His colors all mix together now.
As the colors pass away, Clarence becomes the lighting behind his spectrum.
And it is so very, very beautiful.
The separation is gone.
Clarence is gone.
Ms. Cecilia gossips about the tragedy in stage-whispered poor-dear tones to her customers the next day, saying to this one, “Suicide…” and to that one, “Touched in the head…” and to everyone, “Such a shame….” She clicks her pink tongue as she takes another languid sip of hot brown liquid contained in a white throw-away cup.
Thank god for sugar-laden lattes.
–by Rose Guildenstern–
When Dante wrote Satan at the center of his Inferno, frozen from the waist down in the ninth circle of Hell, he neglected to mention that the reason the hideous guy is still stuck there is because he remembers being a “creature eminent in beauty once” and is desperately trying to take a good selfie of each of his three faces.
Which we all know is impossible.
The first selfie I ever attempted was a hellish experience. That deceptively benign click of my camera phone produced a photo that made me look like something the griffin dragged in. Through sand. After hacking up a hideous pellet of fat and bones enclosed in poo.
I looked more harpy than human. Jowls swallowed my chin and dark circles gnawed at my eyes. My hair appeared matted with dirty feathers, and my arms jiggled at me—impudently. My first selfie betrayed me far worse than Judas betrayed Jesus or Brutus and Cassius betrayed Caesar. It was my camera phone that Satan should have been chewing for eternity in the depths of Hell.
My friends on social media made it seem so effortless. They chronicled their lives in impromptu snapshots of themselves performing mundane tasks that looked so fabulous in their selfies, like drinking coffee or standing up. Heck, one acquaintance took a selfie that made sitting on a toilet look sexy.
Haunted by the spirit of my first disastrous attempt, I asked my friends how they did it. How did they master the art of the selfie? And why bother? Was there a hidden gun to their head? Did their husbands threaten to leave them if they failed to produce the perfect selfie? Were they trying to connect with their selfie-obsessed kids?
One friend told me that selfies are the new necessary evil. Another admitted that her selfies represented the life she wished she lived. After sifting through all their comments (and lamentations), I gathered a list of selfie tips, along with the consistent directive to download and begin using an app of apparently supernatural powers: The Selfie Filter.
So, I followed their advice. I took the selfie outside during the recommended sunlight that wouldn’t make me look like a dying raccoon. I held the camera above my head just-so and wore long sleeves to avoid resembling the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I chanted the requisite divine prayer: “Pretty please.” I processed it through the Selfie Filter, which erased every wrinkle, eradicated ten pounds, and transformed the background from a spurting water fountain to lavish Lake Erie.
The result was…tolerable.
The perfect way to freeze forever the memory of what ought not to be.
–by Rose Guildenstern–
Ten minutes late.
Sam, of course, arrived early and then waited, foot-tapping nervously as he watched the hands on the warped clock face flip him off with every irksome tick and tock. When the clock, at last, shrieked four times, a man who looked more like an imp than his role as administrative assistant led Sam through a crooked door saying, “Please take a seat,” with a mumbled apology that, “Mr. Norton may be a few minutes late, sir.”
Sam despised tardiness. He believed there should be a special place reserved in hell for the chronically delayed. He’d in fact spent the last three minutes mentally designing all sorts of horrific tortures for just such a person.
The interview room was monotonous, walls empty of adornment except for yet another faulty clock, this one with the numbers in the wrong order: 1 12 3 5 6 7 9 10 4 11 8 2. According to this clock, it was 5:15, which was one hour off, of course.
Sam checked his own Rolex to verify and upped the ante on the level of gore in his cerebral torments.
The crooked door opened, and in came a man with blue skin and kinky crimson hair. He arbitrarily flipped through a manila folder of papers that had someone else’s name clearly printed on the cover in Bookman Old Style font—one “Barnard Hutchinson”—consulted the clock in the room, frowned slightly, and said, “You’re over an hour late, you know.”
Sam’s nostrils flared as he began a slow and systematic grinding away of his silver teeth.
The man smiled that offensive sort of fakery that makes one want to toss him in front of a moving semi.
Sam only just stopped himself.
Understanding dawned on the blue man’s face. “Ah, you’re not Barnard Hutchinson, are you? So sorry, mix up in the paperwork. Be right back.”
He vanished, leaving only the manila folder belonging to Barnard Hutchinson laying haphazardly on the floor.
Sam stared at the mess. He waited over five full minutes—the clock read 5:22—before giving in to curiosity. Snapping his fingers, the papers appeared in his own hands. Opening “Barnard Hutchinson’s” file, he read the following words neatly scrawled on a single piece of paper:
Are you Barnard Hutchinson? No. So mind your own fucking business.
The rest of the papers were blank.
Sam placed the folder neatly on the table in front of him, then smashed the table into a jumbled heap with his golden fist.
Standing, he strode toward the crooked door, grabbed the doorknob with his hands, and found it was locked. With a mighty roar, he threw himself into the door, cracking it in two.
The impish assistant crouched trembling on the other side. He squeaked, “I’m sorry, s-sir, but if you wish to be considered, you must wait like everyone else.”
“But I’m not like everyone else, and you know it.”
Someone tapped Sam on the shoulder, and he whirled around, fists at the ready, to discover the blue man beaming back at him. “We’ve found your paperwork, thank you for your patience. If you’ll please return to your seat, we can begin now.”
Sam took a deep breath. Then another. He crossed the room and sat in the same damned chair in front of the demolished table. “I’d apologize about the table, but you’re lucky that’s all that happened.”
The blue man whistled and sat opposite him. “Collateral damage, completely understandable.” He paused, flipping through a new folder with the name “Samael” embossed in Times New Roman. “Your work experience is impressive, if I do say so myself. Angel of Death, Venom of God, Commander of two million angels. I’m surprised you want a transfer. Anything in particular prompt this change?”
“Irreconcilable differences with my colleagues.”
“Oh, I see.” The blue man squinted at the paperwork. “Yes…it says here that Michael and you have had a few, uh…disagreements.”
“They’re all a bunch of pansy-ass boys afraid to do God’s true work.”
The blue man cleared his throat. “The ‘true work’ of taking men’s souls?”
Sam just stared at him.
“So, you want to stop being an archangel and join the demonic legions?”
“I’ve been misplaced in my current position. My IDP supports this adjustment.”
“And your immediate supervisor has approved this?”
It was Sam’s turn to clear his throat. “Not…exactly.”
“Meaning He disapproves.”
“Did He offer an explanation?”
Sam’s hands began to sweat. “He says I’m too pretty.”
The blue man looked him up and down. “Well, there is that.”
“That shouldn’t matter! I can’t help how He made me.”
“There, there. It’s all part of His plan.” The blue man closed the folder and placed it in his lap. He steepled his fingers. “I’m sorry, but I can’t consider this transfer without your superior’s approval.”
Desperation clawed at Sam. He couldn’t work another day in such a hostile work environment. He pleaded, “Is there no way? None at all?”
The blue man took pity on the poor wretch. He leaned over and whispered in a diamond ear, “You didn’t hear this from me, but the only way to change work hubs is if your boss casts you out.”
Sam’s starlight eyes twinkled.
Of course. Why hadn’t he thought of that?
—by Rose Guildenstern–
In the suburbs of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, lived two reluctant neighbors, Larry Bolton and Chad Weaver.
Every morning at dawn, Larry walked out front in his plaid pajamas, terry bathrobe, and bedroom slippers to collect his newspaper. He took a long breath of the morning air as he sipped his hot cup of black coffee and watched the rosy sunrise over the Schuylkill River. Saying a prayer of thanks out loud for the blessing to live one more day, the old man turned around, shuffled back into his home, and shut the door, locking it behind him.
That’s when Chad always saw Larry peeking through his window shutters, spying on Chad like clockwork.
Mornings in the Weaver household tended toward chaos over clockwork. With two kids in school and two working parents, it was all he and Kayla could do some days just to get the girls fed and out the door before they were already late. Moving across the country from Los Angeles three years ago for Chad’s promotion proved far more difficult a change than they’d expected, and only now were they beginning to acclimate to the culture shock of Eastern Pennsylvania, where people said “hello” and meant it…until they didn’t.
Larry hadn’t meant a hello in over two years.
The trouble started during the Weaver’s second week in their newly purchased home on Lightwood Drive. Chad and his eldest, Mia, were having a grand time raking the leaves scattered all over their front yard: A novel adventure for both as former Californians used to perennial sunshine and palm trees. As Mia chased a particularly spirited maple leaf, Larry bridged the distance between their two homes to introduce himself.
“Welcome! I’m Larry Bolton, your next-door neighbor.”
Chad stopped, thankful for the reprieve from what he was quickly realizing was far more work than he expected. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m Chad Weaver, and this is my daughter Mia. Say hi, Mia!”
Mia ran toward them, grasping the maple leaf to her chest like a trophy, and sing-songed, “Hello, hello, hello, hello! We are glad to meet you, we are glad to greet you. Hello, hello, hello, hello!” She gave Larry a quick hug and darted back to pick out another treasure to play with from among the leaves.
“Friendly little gal you’ve got there.” Larry said, smiling. “A real sweetheart.”
“So, I hear you’ve come to us from L.A. That’s quite a change.”
“To say the least. But as you can see, we’re all enchanted with the prospect of a real autumn. And the girls can’t wait to have their first white Christmas.”
That’s when Kayla came out to call the two in for lunch, and Larry realized that Chad’s wife was black.
His reaction wasn’t uncommon, even in California.
First, he squinted in confusion as he stiffened, followed by a swift glance from Chad to Kayla to Mia and back to Chad as recognition dawned. Then a contrived neutrality masked his expression as he forced a wider grin and an exaggerated wave to Kayla in the doorway.
Inwardly, Chad cringed. After all these years in an interracial marriage, he still wasn’t accustomed to the response. As Mia followed her mother inside, Chad prepared himself for the worst.
“That’s nice…your uh…wife… seems real…nice.”
“It’s been wonderful to meet you, Larry. People weren’t quite so neighborly in California.”
Larry rallied. “My wife, Martha, and I are retired, so we’re home all day. If you ever need anything, let us know.” He paused a moment, slipping both hands deep into his pants pockets. “I’m glad to see you raking your leaves. With the strong winds here, it’s important to keep on top of them or they’ll end up on someone else’s property. The last owners of your house were down right negligent.”
“Thanks for the tip—I’ll be sure to stay ahead of it. Well, I’d better go in now—the family’s waiting for me.”
Larry nodded his head, turned his back, crossed the property line, and that was that.
Or so Chad thought.
The complaints began soon after. Despite Chad’s best efforts, when he was away on business a storm blew all his leaves onto Larry’s pristine lawn. As the first snow came in December and Chad used his new snowblower, the snow from Chad’s driveway ended up all over the side of Larry’s house. When Kayla hosted a Christmas party with her work colleagues, Larry showed up pounding on their door at 10:30 pm, protesting the noise.
And that was only the beginning.
In no time, Chad began to lose his patience with Larry as well. One of the geezer’s dogs scared Chad’s youngest, Shelby, so she fell and broke her hand. The family found themselves keeping their curtains closed, even on a lovely day, to avoid being creeped out by Larry’s prying eyes. During a particularly nasty thunderstorm, one of Larry’s huge trees fell over and took out Chad’s window.
That man was home all day long with all the time he wanted to do whatever he liked, yet what it seemed he liked to do most was judge Chad—who worked sixty-plus hours a week and often traveled for business—as remiss in a neighbor’s obligations.
After a little over a year of these passive-aggressive disputes, Larry hired a company to build a fence between their properties (and only between their properties, not on any of the other sides of his land). He served Chad with a bill to pay for half of it—afterward.
Chad was livid. He appealed to the home owner’s association, but they refused to take sides. He had his lawyer draft and send a letter refusing to pay, and in response Larry sued him.
In the last year, the two had only exchanged perfunctory “hellos” eight times.
Chad kept count.
The final straw came when Chad was traveling in New York City the day of the ISIS attack, and Kayla was beside herself with worry, not knowing if her husband was living or dead. Larry’s words of “comfort” when they ran into each other at the post office were, “That’s what you get for voting for a fake candidate.”
Larry knew that Chad voted Independent.
Chad returned home safe, alive but rattled from his proximity to the attack and furious at Larry for what the man had said to Kayla. He stayed up late after his kids were safely tucked in bed with dreams of sugar plums in their heads—it was Christmas Eve—and drafted a letter that expressed in no uncertain terms just where the codger could stick his “neighborly” ways. He even gift-wrapped the letter and placed an enormous red bow on it. When Chad turned off the light on his bed stand just after midnight, he fell into the deepest sleep he’d slept in the three years since he’d been shackled to Larry Bolton.
The next morning, his children were gone.
Surprised they hadn’t been awakened to rush downstairs and open presents, Chad and Kayla found their daughters’ beds empty.
They were nowhere to be found in the house. The doors were still locked from the inside, and the alarm system was still on.
It was as though Mia and Shelby had vanished.
Kayla called 911 while Chad charged outside to look for them.
Lightwood Drive was deserted, eerily so.
Even Larry’s shutters were shut.
Kayla ran out the front door to Chad, tears streaming down her face. “They’re gone. They’re all gone.”
Panicked, Chad took his wife in his arms. “What do you mean?”
“They told me they’ve disappeared—everywhere. All of them. It’s on the news.”
The sound of Chad’s heartbeat pummeled his ears. His jaw clenched so hard his teeth hurt.
They clung to each other, alone, on the hollow street in front of their hollow home.
Throughout the rest of that fateful Christmas day and into the following week, the people of Earth remained glued to their televisions and computers and radios everywhere. All the children of the world who had not yet begun the onset of puberty vanished at 2 am Eastern Time—from their beds, from schools, from churches, from cars, from play yards. Even from their parent’s arms. Developing fetuses evaporated, leaving expectant mothers no longer pregnant. One doctor reported holding a newborn in the delivery room before a blinding flash of multi-colored light and a shrill trumpeting sound seemed to cause the baby to fade from her arms like an insubstantial ghost.
Larry’s grandchildren were taken, too.
On New Year’s Day, the empty graves were discovered.
Far and wide, cemeteries and funeral homes were despoiled, as though the corpses had risen from the dead and abandoned the living.
Soon the religious began calling it the Rapture. God had taken the elect back home to Him before the coming Tribulation. They quoted the Bible on every news station, either to support or refute the idea, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
But the adults remained unchanged.
For three weeks, nothing new happened. Not a child was found, and whenever someone died, the body simply disintegrated into nothingness.
Larry lost Martha to a heart attack.
Chad returned to work, because he didn’t know what else to do.
Kayla never left the house, attached to the always-on TV set like an altar.
On the morning of January 25th, something changed in the sky. The normal blue of the distant heavens mutated to a mottled iron gray, immediately followed by an official message, at last. Broadcasted on all media, in every language, the news filled screens large and small:
“People of the Third Planet, you have infected existence. We have measured all possible simulations, and they either end with you destroying your own world or contaminating others. We have saved your children from you, purged your ability to conceive more, and begun the process of cleansing your diseased planet of your brokenness. However, we are merciful, unlike your own species. You will be allowed to live out your short lifespans. Once the last of your twisted generations are dead, we will begin the restoration of your world and return your children to live upon it, cured of your influence. This is the only communication you will receive from us, as our judgment is final. An impenetrable fence now surrounds your world to keep you separated from the rest of us.”
For the first time in a month, Kayla clicked off the television.
Tender, she kissed Chad on the cheek, walked upstairs, and killed herself.
There were many suicides that day.
Everything that mattered was gone. The future was gone. All hope was gone.
Chad stayed home from work on January 26th, sitting on his expensive three-year-old sofa and staring at nothing.
That’s when he heard it. A loud pounding, a terrific cracking, interspersed with low moans and heaving sobs.
Chad Weaver forced himself to get up, plod toward his front door, and open it, stepping into the changed sunlight.
His mouth fell open.
Larry Bolton stood, bawling like a baby, surrounded by a demolished fence.