Sunday, July 31, 2011

Not Without My Daughter

The blast of sunlight forced her to close her eyes.  Normally, such an act would greatly inhibit vision.  But Sarah found that with the light pulsing against her eyelids the image of the ground below her was even clearer than before she jumped.  What surprised her was the difference.  She was prepared to land in the swirling, stormy river that was underneath the bridge she had just crashed into, but with her eyes closed, she saw flat ground.  It was wooden, but not the rough kind you see in nature.  This floor was sanded down and polished.  And it was close to impact. 

Sarah flashed open her eyes, gasped in a deep breath and braced herself for impact. 

It never came. 

As soon as she opened her eyes, all movement stopped.  And sound.  The rushing of water and wailing of sirens and screaming of helpless people on the sidelines, all faded.  It was replaced with nothing, so all she heard was her fast breathing and her heart beat pounding in her ears.  All she saw was the polished wood floor an inch from her face.  No part of her touched it.  She was suspended in air, in the diving pose she'd taken as she leaped off the bridge seconds earlier. 

Slowly, she straightened her body.  Her limbs moved easily through the air as if it were a solid thing, there to help her get back on her feet.  As soon as her feet were solidly where they were meant to be, the air went back to being as thin and helpless and empty as before.  There was much to take in about her surroundings, but the thing Sarah noticed first were the patterns  They were swirling blues that danced across every surface.  It reminded her of the zoo at the underground caves where you could see the penguins swimming through a glass.  The reflection of the water danced like that.  When Sarah looked up she saw why.  The ceiling was made of water, but it wasn't smooth like glass or clear like a swimming pool.  It was thick and choppy and had bumps for seaweed and little moving objects like fish.  Beyond that was a faint light with dark objects outlined around the water.  She would never know how long she stood there, gazing in wonderment at the sight before she realized what she was looking at- the river bed.  She was underneath the river. 

"Adeline."  She whispered it at first, then it became her mantra, growing louder as she looked for the reason she'd jumped in the river in the first place:  her car.  And trapped inside of it was her daughter.  Then her logic kicked in despite the obvious discrepancies in her current surroundings.  If she was under the river at the point where she jumped in, her car would be further ahead, being pulled by the current.  She ran forward, searching the ceiling for any large, quickly sinking object. 

She brushed against objects as she ran, but she never hit anything.  It was as if they moved as she rushed past them.  She heard the hushed whisperings but mistook them for the flow of the water above.  Finally she spotted it.  A barely functioning teal green P.O.S., but it was her barely functioning teal green P.O.S. and it was lodged between two large rocks near the edge of the canyon, completely submerged and not going anywhere any time soon.  It was stable.  If she could reach it, maybe she could get Adeline out.  It was a long shot, but she couldn't give up on the hope.  The hope was all that was keeping her in one piece. 

Sarah jumped up.  The ceiling wasn't that far away.  It looked like she could just reach up, grab onto a piece of seaweed and pull herself into the water and get to the car from there.  Maybe that was why she was brought to this place, so she could reach Adeline faster than if she had tried to swim there.  But every jump was the same.  No matter how hard she pushed or how deep she bent, it was always just beyond her fingertips. 

That's when the tears came.  Tears of frustration, of helplessness, of anger and every failed jump brought a deeper cry of anguish.  She shouted at the ceiling, like it was all its fault she couldn't touch it.  When she looked for something to boost her up, the room was suddenly empty of all objects.  When her legs gave up from fatigue, she collapsed into a pile on the floor and wept. 

When she had no tears left, a hand touched her shoulder.  Sarah whipped around, batting the arm away and getting to her feet with an energy drawn from surprise.  She thought she was alone there.  But the room was full again and this time Sarah looked at its occupants. 

The hand that touched her was webbed and the creature it belonged to was the most beautiful she had ever seen.  Her skin was blue like the ocean, her features human-like in the way that Sarah recognized them, but they were so much more delicate.  The bottom half of her long body curved into fins that hovered above the ground.  If Sarah didn't know better she would have used the term 'mermaid.'  On top of the creature's head was a glittering crown.  Queen of the mermaids.   

The sight of her immediately calmed all of Sarah's worries.  She felt peace and happiness and hope again.  But deep in the pit of her stomach, Sarah was cautious of this sudden change, however much she liked it. 

"What do you seek?"  The creature asked.

"My daughter."

"This Adeline you speak of?"

Sarah nodded, finding it too painful to speak. 

"She is safe." 

All the air rushed out of Sarah's lungs.  "Where is she?  Can I see her?"

The creature hesitated.  She looked over her shoulder to a man who floated behind her.  He also had a crown and a glowing trident in his right hand.  The name Titan came to Sarah's mind, but she shook it away.  This brought a smile to the man's lips.  He nodded to his wife. 

She brought both hands to the ceiling and parted the waters above.  A glowing bubble appeared in the middle of the river.  In the middle of the bubble was Adeline, asleep and peaceful and covering her cheek with one hand while the other made a pillow under her head.  The familiar sight brought such joy to Sarah's heart that another tear escaped.  This time its warmth on her cheek was welcome.  

"Thank you."  She told the creatures.  "How can I ever repay you for saving her for me?"

The coldness in the woman creature in front of her was unexpected.  Humans show pride and humility and a shared happiness when thanked for a good deed.  It put the caution back into Sarah's happiness.  "Did I say something wrong?"  She asked. 

"We saved her not for you."  The woman bit out.  "Our kind is unable to procreate.  We must turn the likes of your young into our own and raise them as such.  We have harvested your daughter for such a purpose."

Harvested.  Purpose.  The floor beneath Sarah spun as if the water had broken free from its ceiling barrier and swept her away. 

"Such opportunities do not present themselves often enough." The creature continued.  "We must take advantage of them when they occur." 

Sarah kept shaking her head, as if that would erase the creature's words and make it so they never happened.  "Why?"  She asked.

"I believe I explained our inability to procreate."

"No, why did you bring me here if you weren't planning on giving her back?"

"We brought you nowhere.  You are trespassing on our property.  We know not how you came to be here.  But we have decided not to execute you for such offense.  We will give you the choice to go back to your world, free of harm.  You should know this offer is not made to everyone."

"But I would be leaving alone."


"I am not leaving without my daughter."

"So be it.  Your death will be easy to arrange."

Sarah kept shaking her head.  This could not be happening.  "There has to be another way." 

"There is."  The voice was male, deeper than the king's and it belonged to a creature on the sidelines who stepped forward.  His gaze was on Sarah alone, though the gaze of every other creature was on him.  Especially the two with the crowns.  The queen's face turned purple, which Sarah could only assume was from a red blush mixing with her blue skin.  She wore a pinched expression that didn't quite fit her delicate features.  She was angry.  The male continued despite all this.  "The old rules state that a duel could settle the matter.  Should the human win, her daughter would return to the surface with her."

"He is correct."  The queen had retained her composure and spoke in her matter of fact voice.  "But he fails to mention that should you lose, you will die.  The offer we give now to return you to the surface unharmed will be revoked should you accept the duel."

"I accept."  Sarah didn't hesitate.  There was no question.  No way could she go back to her life knowing she didn't do everything in her power to save her daughter.  Death would be a welcome alternative to life without Adeline. 

"So be it."  The pinched look was back on the queen's face.  With a wave of her hand the floor dropped away. 

Sarah couldn't tell if another floor rushed up to greet them, or if they dropped down to it.  Either way, no one moved while the surroundings replaced themselves, but Sarah tensed until her feet had a solid bearing beneath them again.  When she saw what was now around her, she wasn't sure if it was a good change or not.

The young man who had spoken up in her defense walked toward her.  He held his head high while studiously ignoring all the glares and whispers pointed in his direction.

"I am known as Bartholomew."  He greeted her and then bowed. 

"I'm Sarah."  She wanted to curtsy, but felt awkward doing so in the jeans she was wearing, so she just kind of nodded at him.  "Why did you help me?"  She asked.  "Everyone else is pretty mad at you.  Won't you get in trouble?"

"Depends on the outcome.  If you win, I suppose some measure of retribution will be played out.  But do not be fooled by the external reaction of the crowd.  Many of them are pleased at the distraction a duel presents.  They merely exhibit shock and anger because that is what the queen wants from them." 

"Oh.  So you're not helping me.  You're doing this for entertainment."

"I am sorry to disappoint, but our kind feels that the truth should not be lightened in order to spare feelings."

"I see."

"Don't get me wrong, I do want a fair fight, as does everyone here.  So I will explain the rules for you.  Over there you see the glittering lights of the varanidae.  You must reach them first and extinguish them.  The queen is on her own starting point across the way." He pointed to the figure Sarah could barely see.  "You are both exact distances from the lights."

Varanidae?  Did he mean veranda?  There were lights on a porch that she had to run to and put out?  "Doesn't seem like much of a duel." She said,  "Not that I'm complaining."  She could totally do that.  She ran track in high school.  Then she saw the wicked smile that came to Bartholomew's lips and her confidence once again shattered. 

"There will be challenges along the way."  He said, but that was all he said.

"What kind of challenges?"

"The queen will be creating obstacles to stop you."

"Isn't that cheating?"

"You may also create challenges for her."

"Create?  How do I do that?  I can't create anything.  I can barely bake a cake."

"You must be able to create.  You would not have been able to breach our barriers if you could not create."  Sarah just looked at him with wide eyes and crooked eyebrows.  He sighed.  His webbed fingers brushed against her stomach.  It tingled as it often did when she was nervous about something.  "You feel that?"


"That is your core energy source.  Call it what you like.  That is what you must use when you envision what you want to create.  Then it will be."

"As simple as that?"

He nodded slightly, bowed in farewell and stepped back from Sarah and into the crowd floating on the sidelines.  The crowd then disappeared from sight, but its voices were loud and clear as they shouted encouragement and disparities in equal force. 

The tingling nervousness pitched higher in her stomach.  She thought for a second she might throw up.  It was about to begin. 

The note sounded deep and low and long, the crowd cheered and the figure in the distance she knew to be the queen launched from her starting place.  Sarah ran forward, keeping her eyes on the lights, in order to keep her goal in mind, remind her of why she was doing this in the first place.  She was thinking of Adeline when the flat road changed into sand and her feet tripped over the sudden difference.  She hit the ground with a thud.  She jumped back up, spitting sand out of her mouth, but still able to run.  Although the sand slowed her down considerably, she could still do this.  That was the mantra that repeated in her mind.  She could figure this out.

She had to tell herself not to look over at the queen.  It will not help.  Scary movie rule #3: Never look behind you when the bad guy is chasing you.  It only slows you down.

The ground shook slightly, that was the only warning before a giant scorpion crawled out of it, teeth bared, pincher swinging.  It was bigger than she was.  She slammed on the brakes, closed her eyes and thought, briefly, of what Bartholomew said about the tingly nervous feeling being the core of her energy source.  She crashed into something solid.  When she opened her eyes she expected to be staring into the belly of the scorpion, but once again, she underestimated the realm she had entered.  She stared, instead, at a wall.  It was as high as the water ceiling and, apparently, strong enough to keep the scorpion at bay because she could hear it crashing around on the other side.  She touched it gingerly and smiled.  She did this.  It was on her mind as she thought about the energy source.  If that was all it took, she could totally do this.  Her confidence wasn't just bluffing anymore.  She actually felt capable.  Still nervous, but less like she was going to die at any moment.

The scorpion couldn't go over the wall because it was too high and it couldn't go around the wall because it extended as far as Sarah could see; which meant it also reached into the queen's path.  Sarah allowed herself a moment of triumph when she saw the queen picking herself up off the ground, having hit the wall much the same way Sarah did.  Her triumph was short lived when the queen waved a hand and a hole blasted through it and she continued on her way, unabated.  That would have to change.  If she could create a wall, certainly Sarah could create a beast as well.  The first one that came to mind was a jaguar.  She made it bigger than life and venomous, just to get even. 

Now she had her own beast to contend with.  There were chants from the unseen crowd for her to "kill, kill, kill"  the scorpion.  But she wouldn't even know how to go about doing that, let alone with what.  She didn't watch scary horror movies filled with different arrays of killing methods and tools.  What she did do, was play World of WarCraft.  So she took a page from her favorite character, a Priest, and she created a protective bubble around her.  Then she burst a hole in the wall, took a deep breath, and barrelled through.  She had no idea if this would even work.  So when the scorpion screamed its battle cry in her face and lashed at her with its tail, she didn't breath, she just kept running as fast as her feet would take her. 

The tail bounced off her bubble, rebounded into the scorpions face, maiming its eye and leaving it behind in the dust.  Yes!  She made it!  And the queen was behind her now, still battling with the leopard.  The queen noticed Sarah's advance and made some sweeps with her hand.  A hole caved in the floor, but Sarah countered it by giving the bubble levitation powers and she sailed right over it.  Two large crocodiles snapped at her feet, but they couldn't pierce the bubble, either and they couldn't keep up with her fast pace. 

The beasts kept coming, faster and more of them, but Sarah dodged and kept her bubble up and just ran and ran, keeping the finish line in sight no matter how many creatures were following her.  If she could make it to the lights, she would be safe.  So she assumed.  She had no idea what it would take to extinguish the lights, if she would need water or tools, but those would be easy to create at this point.  The trick would be doing that with this herd of things trying to kill her at the same time.  That was one downside of not killing each one as they came up.  But she would worry about that when the time came. 

Finally, the lights were within her reach, but they were up on top of a raised cage-like structure so she couldn't see them until she climbed the stairs.  But as she climbed, she wasn't looking at the lights.  She was looking at all the creatures that were ravenous man-eating beasts only seconds ago.  Now they stopped clawing and swiping at her and they sat down on the floor and looked up, watching.  This unnerved her slightly.  Was it because the game wouldn't let them go beyond that point or was it due to the animal's hierarchy where they step down when a larger foe is around.  For some reason, Sarah didn't think it was the first one. 

She was right.  How she wished, for once, she could be wrong.  The lights inside the cage were inside a cage for a reason.  They weren't simple, pretty lights attached to candles or even torches.  They were attached to large, slithering lizards.  She recognized one as a Komodo Dragon she'd seen in a zoo once with Adeline.  Only this one had large scales and sharp teeth poking out of its snout.  And it stalked around like it was hungry.  Each dragon had a light at the end of its tail that whipped around, out of reach until you dealt with the business end.

And she had to extinguish the lights.  Meaning, she assumed, she had to extinguish the animal. 

There were loud, shuffling noises behind her when she got to the top step and she looked behind her at the animals to see them all parting to the sides and backing away slowly.  The queen was making her way to the front.  She was more haggered than when Sarah first saw her and she was covered in dark red and blue liquids.  All the beasts the queen had created to attack Sarah, Sarah created a duplicate and sent it to the queen.  And the queen was covered in the remnants of their deaths.  She didn't look like she was going to start hacking away at the beasts lined up to watch Sarah, but they weren't talking any chances.  They gave her a wide berth. 

Sarah stood there, waiting for the queen to make her move, but the queen only smiled a wicked smile, bowed to Sarah and waved for her to continue.  She was waiting for Sarah to die before taking her turn. 

Well, Sarah wasn't exactly one to do what other people expected.

The moment Sarah stepped onto the top stair, the bars of the cage widened to encircle her within their confines.  The lizards didn't waste any time.  They lunged and snapped and fought each other for the right to rip her limb from limb.  When all they met was bubble, it only enraged them further.  Sarah didn't have much of a plan beyond this.  In order to kill them, she'd have to break the bubble but she'd only be able to kill one, maybe two at a time and the other lizards would surely get her by then.  So she circled them, watching for weaknesses, while searching her brain for all the Animal Planet episodes involving reptiles she could think of.

The heckling from the crowd grew louder.  "You're going to have to come out of that bubble sometime!"  "Just do something already!"  "Where's you're human superiority now?"

There was something about the way they said 'human' like it was a curse word that inspired Sarah.  She did have an advantage.  She had legs and unwebbed fingers and the internet.  Mainly gaming sights.  She stole one idea from World of WarCraft and it worked out pretty well for her.  So she came up with a plan, took a deep breath and released the bubble.

There was no safe place on the ground to stand, so Sarah jumped onto the back of a pile of three lizards too busy fighting each other to worry about her.  When the bubble fell away she blew all the air in her lungs into the palm of her hand where she had created a sleeping potion.  She made sure it was all gone and didn't take another breath until the bubble was around her again so she wouldn't accidentally breath any of it in. 

One by one, the lizards stopped wrestling, stopped fighting and fell heavily to the ground.  When the last one twitched its tail, Sarah dropped the bubble again, this time with a sword.  She went to the closest one and hacked off the very tip of the tail with the light on it.  The light fell to the ground, fickered and went out.  It worked.  And the lizard was still breathing.  She didn't have to kill them after all.  She went to each lizard, one by one and cut off its light, sometimes having to heave one lizard off of another one below it to get to them all. 

When she was finished, she headed toward the stairs, wanting to get out of there before the lizards woke up, but the queen stood in her way.  Her smirk was gone and that pinched look was back on her face.  Sarah held her sword up, but all the queen did was wave her hand. 

The ceiling crashed.  Sarah barely had time to drop the sword and get in a breath before the water swept over her.  Instinctively she pushed her feet off the floor and swam up to the surface.  Off to the right, Sarah saw a glowing bubble.  Adeline!  She changed her direction to grab her daughter, hoping that she was still asleep inside a nice, warm bubble.  The water was freezing cold and moving in the opposite direction as Sarah.  The air in her lungs pressed against her insides, bursting to get out and Sarah could see the choppy waves just above her.  She could get to the surface, get a breath and come back down but fear kept her on a straight course.  There was no way of knowing if she'd be able to find Adeline again once she left the water. 

By the time Sarah reached the glowing bubble, her head pulsed from the pressure and her vision was blacking out.  The last thing she remembered was reaching into the glow, touching her daughter, alive and well, before passing out. 

She came to sputtering water and coughing hot fire from her lungs.  She sat up fast and hit her head on something hard that groaned.  Groaned?  Hard things don't groan.  She dared to open her eyes.  A man in a fireman's outfit was leaning over her, rubbing his head.  Her hands were covered in mud from the shoreline where she was laying. 

"Adeline!"  She didn't have to search frantically for long.  She was laying right next to her, soaking wet, but asleep and breathing.  Sarah hugged her against her chest and sobbed quiet tears of joy.  Another fireman was next to Adeline, smiling.  Sarah looked at the two men by her.  They were both, also, soaking wet. 

"What happened?"  She asked.

"You were in a car crash."

"Right.  I was behind a semi that hit a patch of ice or something because it crashed into the bridge and I didn't have enough time to stop so I crashed into him.  We were both dangling over the edge.  He got out and came to help us.  I got out, but Adeline was asleep in the back and she and the car both went over."

"We arrived just in time to see you jump in after the car.  When we came to the water edge, you were both right over there," the fireman pointed to a short distance from shore, "trying to fight the current and get to the surface.  We helped you out and gave you mouth to mouth, but the little one here, she was just fine.  Sleeping through the whole thing, I think."  He laughed but it wasn't a funny laugh.  More like a thinking laugh.  "It was wierd.  When we saw you under the water it was as if you glowed or something.  If it wasn't for that, we probably never would have found you.  You were lucky."

Luckily Adeline chose that moment to stir around and wake up, otherwise Sarah may have been tempted to tell them the whole story and how luck didn't have much to do with it. 

"Mom?"  Adeline asked.  She sat up and snuggled into Sarah's outstretched arms.  "Mom, what happend?  Why am I all wet?"

"We just went for a little swim.  Are you okay?"

"Yeah.  Just tired.  I think I'll go back to sleep.  I was having a great dream about these mermaids and the fun palace they live in.  Maybe if I go back, they'll let me stay with them."


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Day in the Life of an Evil Gnome

The gnome's name was something simple, though he'd long forgotten it by the time he was limping through trash on the side of the road that wet, dark morning.  He had spent so long roaming from one garbage pile to another it didn't seem odd to him anymore.  In fact, when he heard tires rolling by he didn't even bother to stiffen up.  The humans would be paying attention to far more interesting things than him.  He hardly ever had a reason to go immobile.  No humans came near enough to be of concern and, anyways, his movements didn't exactly break any speed records nowadays.  If someone did happen to see his slow shuffle in motion, no doubt they would pass it off as a glint of sunlight in their eye. 

Even so, when the tires stopped moving and car doors opened and slammed shut, the gnome froze where he was.  His heart no longer pitter-pattered with anticipation.  His ears no longer followed their movements to see how close they were to him, trying to measure whether or not they'd pick him up, take him home, love him.  He merely waited for their sounds to fade so he could begin his trek in silence once again. 

Their sounds did not fade this time.  The two young, giggling ladies went straight for the dumpster right beside him that sheltered his weary bones from the mid-day sun.  They talked and they giggled and made grossed out noises as they filtered through the waste in the bin.  The old gnome, the one with a name, probably would have wondered what two female humans were doing in a dumpster in an alley, but he no longer cared.  It was none of his business.  It only involved him when one of the girls slipped and fell off the side of the dumpster, landing on her touche with a grunt and kicking him in the process.  He clinked against the asphalt as he tumbled head over heels and landed with a thunk against a wall. 

"What was that noise?"  One of them asked.

"That was me, falling on my ass."  The other responded in between pitiful moaning.

"Not that, the other noise."

"I'm fine by the way.  Thanks for asking."

"Oh, you were barely off the ground.  You fell, like, a foot.  You'll live."

The one that wasn't in pain jumped down from the dumpster, kicked her friend out of the way, and rummaged around the plastic bags and empty soda cans littering the ground until she came across the gnome. 

"Oh, look at this, Lisa."  She turned the gnome over and around and inspected every part and still she did not immediately drop him on the ground.  The gnome only hoped she would not deposit him inside the dumpster.  It would be hell getting back out of that thing. 

Lisa found her way back to her feet and grunted in her friend's general direction.  "Looks all beat up to me.  Put it back."

'Yes, listen to your friend.  I am terribly ugly." The gnome prayed silently.  'Put me where I belong.' 

"I like his character.  Look at his scrunched up face and whiskers and the scepter in his hand.  What do you think?  Maybe it was a rake before it was broken?"

"He looks evil to me."

"Well then he's perfect."

And so the evil gnome was renamed and rehomed.  He was shoved in a garbage sack in a hot trunk full of smelly objects, most likely also pilfered from dumpsters, and driven over bumps and railroad tracks to a trailer park swimming in humans.  How on earth was he to escape from here?

He was admired at first, but not like he once was.  This was a mocking sort of love.  They took pleasure in his faults and lauded them for good.  They called him Evil Gnome like he was a visiting king.  He did not like it one bit.  He would rather be alone.  He was placed in between a faded pink flamingo with a twisted leg and a hedgehog that was missing his left ear and a tail.  The garden was small but it was filled with the broken corpses of once brilliant lawn ornaments.  Here they were rescued from trash bins and yard sales and given a place of prominence to be admired once again.  Most of them thrived there.  They had a support group that met every night after the bug zapper turned on because that meant the humans were either heading inside to sleep or out on the town to party.  Either way, they weren't paying attention to the order of their lawn ornaments. 

Evil Gnome was invited, of course, but he just shrugged and muttered, "who cares?," under his breath.  It's not like he was staying.

They were undeterred.  They smiled and invited him to join all planned activities. They assumed the scowl on his face was painted, that it had nothing to do with his character and that the bitterness was only surface deep and could be brushed aside once he was given kindness to replace it with. They had no way of knowing that he once smiled brightly or how long he was left to fend for himself after his last owner tossed him aside the morning after a rain storm picked him up and tossed him into a brick planter, chipping the pointy red hat that used to cover his white, wild hair. 

Every day he thought of escape and every night he ended up in the same spot, in between a flamingo and a hedgehog.  Every morning an elderly lady came out and tended the garden.  She weeded and planted and tossed out the trash that gathered through the previous day.  She was the first one to look at him with kindness, without laughing.  She talked to him like she talked to all the other ornaments, about nothing in particular, probably for the sound of her own voice.  He felt the first spark of warmth in his stomach during those times and that scared him.  Humans were unpredictable.  So he shrugged and thought, 'who cares,' and continued his plans for escape. 

There was usually a chance to move around in the middle of the afternoon.  All the humans were fed and sleeping or plopped in front of the glowing boxes in the house.  There was no way Evil Gnome would be able to walk away from the house.  He wouldn't get far enough in the small amount of time he had.  This he knew from experience.  After he had been discovered pastthe gate in front of the house and, once, all the way down the lane and then in the alley that ran behind the garden, the humans formed a stakeout to catch the young hooligans responsible for moving the gnome around.  No hooligans were caught, tensions relaxed and Evil Gnome began thinking of alternatives.  He could hop onto the back of a passing car or truck, but that was dangerous and difficult with short arms.

He only made the mistake of trying to enlist help once.  The rest of the lawn ornaments were deluded into thinking they were happy.  They would beg him to stay whenever he attempted escape and they would console him every time he was brought back, scowling deeper and planning bigger. 

"It's not so bad,"  They would say. 

"We can help you if you let us," They would say. 

"We're all here for you."  The hedghog whispered late one night.

But Evil Gnome knew better.  There was no such thing as happiness.  So he shrugged his shoulders and muttered, "Who cares."

In time, his diligence paid off.  He noticed a white truck that stopped in the same place every day, at the same time.  It had wide open doors that never closed so the driver could easily hop out and place papers and envelopes into small, square boxes.  If he could time this right, he could hop in without anyone noticing.

The hedgehog noticed the gleam in Evil Gnome's eyes one day as he watched the humans in the house and checked the streets.  It was a hot day.  Anyone with any sense was in front of a fan.  Evil Gnome was going for it.  The hedgehog took a breath to say something, but let it out with a sigh.  He knew what Evil Gnome would say and he was tired of hearing it.  Most of the others felt the same way.  Cherry was the ony one who wished him well.

Evil Gnome only rolled his eyes as he slipped through the crack in the low wire fence.  "Who cares."  He snapped back. 

Evil Gnome kept to the sides of the road, for once grateful for all the random boxes and tumbleweeds to have something to hide behind. He got to the white truck, but the opening was just out of his reach, even when he jumped.  But luck was with him.  The driver was having troubles gettting the last of the boxes open.  Evil Gnome was able to use the tire to boost himself into the front of the mail truck.   He landed with a thunk against a box of letters.  He stumbled back right at the edge, gravity tipping him backwards.  The other ornaments, hovering by the fence, gasped.  But Evil Gnome whirled his arms with just the right flare and righted his balance.  He was safe.  He was getting out of there.  For the first time in a long time he felt happy.  He turned around to wave at the ornaments and gave them an actual smile.  He wished, briefly, that he'd said more to them than just those two words.  He may have wished for more, but at that moment the driver hoped into her seat, started the engine and tossed her empty basket right where Evil Gnome was waving, not paying attention.  The bucket knocked him into the street.  That alone would have left him with just a few scrapes and bruises, but he was right in the path of the wheels without enough time to move. 

The lawn ornaments by the fence stared, wide-eyed, not believing what just happened until too much time went by without Evil Gnome getting back up.  He was in too many pieces. 

"Should we go get him?"  Cherry asked tentatively.  "See if there's enough to patch together?"

Hedgehog shrugged.  "Who cares?"

The Absent King

He held it in his gut. He didn't dare open his mouth for fear that it would slip right out before he was finished with it. The human lay at his feet, passed out drunk for the millionth night in a row. Or somewhere thereabouts. Who could tell with Human time?  The only thing that mattered for them was the sun and its continuous rise and fall.  The darkness was the best time to sneak up on the lazy humans. 

Slowly, the tired feeling he had been fighting slipped away and was replaced with a brightness in his extremities. He closed his eyes and let it fill him up, pour into every cell, until he was full to bursting. He savored the languid feeling of completeness while the power was at its height because he knew it wouldn't last long.

When he was done, he opened his mouth. A mist floated out, barely discernible from the hazy smoke that filled the room from the human's last cigarette. The mist moved with a purpose. It was going home. Back into the human's soul. Pity they had to give the energy force back to the humans. Pity their tiny forms weren't strong enough to hold an energy force of their own, requiring them to borrow from lesser forms of life. The brightness faded, leaving him with more than enough energy to make it until his next trip to the surface. It was enough, but it was never enough. The mist left a trail of longing and sadness every time it floated out of him and every time it was harder and harder to ignore.

He sighed and jumped down from the human's stomach (the bellybutton was the easiest access sight). There was a crowd waiting for him when he got there. They were all professional men, too disciplined to show the buzz that had to be coursing through their veins from their own Energy Restorations. These were the soldiers that normally traveled with the citizens of U'Ganda and protected them during Restoration because it is the time when they are most vulnerable. So who protected the soldiers? They took turns. And it looked like he was the last one finished.

The soldiers stood in a relaxed circle, chatting because the rest of the room was silent. All humans were unconscious and sapped of energy. Sleep was the only way to recover from it so they would be out for some time. They were in no immediate danger, there was no chance of discovery and they were freshly energized and ready to take on the world. He actually smiled as he approached the waiting group. It was a good moment, as good as it got, and he let himself feel the excitement. It lasted until the leader of the group, his second in command, U'Pranta pulled away from the circle to greet him. U'Pranta kneeled in front of him, right arm across his chest with his hand in a fist above his heart. A formal gesture from an old friend. This was not a good sign. His words proved no different.

"U'Lantee," the second in command greeted him. "Your mother requests your presence."

The Mother Queen hated her station in life. It presented with all sorts of hindrances. This was a new development in her thinking. Today, she blamed her position as Ruler of the U'Ganda for why she was not able to embrace her son the moment he walked in the room. There were no bystanders to watch, should there be an indiscretion towards protocol, but they followed it anyhow. U'Lantee, her firstborn, her wisest, most beloved, walked in the room with a look of apprehension and dread. He bowed formally, then rose and kissed her cheek. None of these actions were done with the warmth she had once hoped would blossom between them. She blamed her position.

But her station in life did not force her to stand erect with her hands clasped in front of her and her lips pursed in displeasure. She did that all on her own. She could have broke the news to him in a gentler way, she could have led him to a chair, held his hand and sat by him when she told him that the man he loved as his father was dead. That a tunnel had collapsed in the south wing due to a thunderstorm on the surface. The fact that there was only one death was a solace only to the survivors, not to anyone in that room.

She could have put an arm around his shoulders when they slunched and maybe then he would have been comfortable crying in front of her. She could have consoled him. A time of grief could have become a time of bonding. But she did none of those things. She read what she had prepared in her mind, but it came out colder than she wanted. There was no way to soften the blow so she did not attempt it. His look of horror came not only from the news. He reacted to her lack of feeling for a man who raised him, loved him, gave him the tenderness she could not. He hated her for it, she could feel that in his stiffness as he rose to leave, thanked her for giving him the news as if they were discussing the next wave of Restoration Surface Trips.

But she could not tell him why there were no tears.  She could not tell him that she already mourned the loss of the man she loved years ago, that the soul that presided in the shell U'Lantee knew was already gone by the time he was old enough to remember. The fact that the shell was now crumpled on a table in the lowest of lower levels meant nothing to her. She wanted more than anything to tell him this. But her station in life prevented it.

The door closed behind him but he might as well have closed the wall to her heart.

Inside the hollow reaches of the second to last tunnel rushed an older gentleman. If there wasn't such a crisis in the tunnels above, he would have been horrified at his behavior. One of his age should not be rushing anywhere. As it were, everyone else was too busy evacuating and assessing the damage above caused by the collapsed tunnel to pay any attention to his behavior. Of course, if there hadn't been such a crisis in the tunnels above, there would be no need for him to be going to the lowest of the lower levels in such a hurry, either. He did not deny his heart the heaviness it felt because of the task ahead of him but he gladly paid more attention to the pain in his legs, not being used to such activity as running, as a way to delay the inevitable.

All too soon there was no more delaying possible. He reached the door, the last one before their section of land ended and gave way to ant colonies. He pushed it forward with only the slightest of hesitations and closed his eyes only briefly. No one noticed. With a small sigh he joined the chaos in progress.

The former Father of the U'Ganda lay spread eagle on the table, completely unclothed. One soldier held each of his appendages in place, looking at every possible corner of the room except forward. A tightness gripped his chest. No, he couldn't think like that. This was not the young man he helped raise from a little boy. That young man never got to make it to the old age of the body in front of him. That young man was ripped away and filled with an impostor. That is how he had to think of this in order to make it through the evening with his sanity in tact. Nothing but a body.

Above the body hovered a mist. It writhed and contorted into vague shapes before snapping back into a faceless mold. He did not think about his task at hand. Should he have paused at that moment, even for as brief amount of time as he did at the door, the courage he built up would have slipped away irretrievably. Maybe courage was too strong a word. Merely acceptance of an unpleasant task to which he was obliged to full fill. This he did for the spirit that used to be the Father of U'Ganda.

Not a soul in the room looked at him as he stuck his hand into the mist. But the scribes in the corners of the room picked up their utensils, energy and a sense of destiny propelling their quills to jot down every word spoken. Theirs were the only faces that showed no reaction to the words, being too preoccupied on getting them all down and in the correct order that the meaning behind them did not register. They were spared the horror until the room cleared and they were given the task of transforming their shorthand into longhand and comparing notes. When they were finished, not one of their complexions retained the rosy blossom inherit in the U'Ganda people. Their blood drained into their hearts that reached out to the poor Prince U'Lantee.

Prince U'Lantee went from his mother's chamber to his own. He bypassed the sector that was in an uproar and filled with busy workers and panicked citizens. The long way did not seem so long that night. He took the quickest path to the surface first. It took him to his favorite place to be in the whole world. He sat on the branch of the tree that dangled out over the stream. He wasn't close enough to dip his feet, but he could feel the cool energy float off the ripples as they passed under him. He absorbed every sound of the quiet night, losing his thoughts and his turmoil in their peace. He let it calm him like nothing else did.

It was a trick his dad showed him. Sitting on that very branch years ago, before he became distant, before his mother pulled away from their marriage. U'Lantee was convinced that her sudden cold demeanor ruined his father, that things could have turned out so differently. If only....

His branch creaked as another joined him. U'Lantee jumped up too late. He should have seen or heard the intruder before then. He berated his laziness as he took a fighting stance. The soft, girlish laugh did not deter him until he saw her face.

"Will you fight me, U'Lantee?" U'Kira did not stop her advance.

U'Lantee laughed with her. He would not fight her. Never her. He let her join him, which she did without a word. They sat next to each other on the branch, their sides brushing against each other, the silence filled with everything she did not need to say. It was clear she knew what had happened and why he had come to their favorite place. After a moment she took his hand and leaned her head against his shoulder. She was not there long before he kissed her.

It was soft, at first, as it always was, but always it ended there and then she giggled and ran away for him to catch her again. A game he did not mind, even on a night such as that. But it was a different night in more ways than one. Her lips did not let him go.  They pushed into him harder with an urgency he matched kiss for kiss. He did not know when he first noticed the mist, but he did know that he first brushed it aside as fog even though it was unusual for that time of year. He was preoccupied with more important things than fog and its peculiarities. By the time his breath was coming in short gasps, it was too late. The mist was in his lungs, making no room for air and no room for life.

He managed one word before he died and it gave him the best last moment he could have wished for. "U'Kira?" There was so much pain in that question, to be betrayed by the one woman he thought to confide in, but his voice woke her from some spell. The mist was no longer in her and controlling her actions. She screamed when she saw him, and tried her best to revive him and when it was obvious that her efforts were failing, she held him and told him that she loved him.

Though hers was the kiss of death, it was the best kiss of his life.